points of origins

You know those stories about immigrants having their names changed, not by their own choice, upon arrival at Ellis Island or other points of entry? I hadn’t given them much thought, but it turns out that most of the stories, at least in simplest form, are very unlikely to be true. As the U.S. National Archives blog points out, most of the arrival records for immigrants – passenger manifests and the like – were produced before departure; these records may have contained errors that were reproduced in the U.S., but they were not created by Ellis Island officials.

This is not to say that immigrants didn’t have their names changed, just that – as this article linked in the comments to the archives’ post explains in more detail – the stories behind those changes are more complicated.


May 2005

Interview with Jared Diamond published in World History Connected:

DIAMOND: Partly. I have lots of discussions with people in the social sciences, especially economists. And there are some groups of historians—environmental historians, economic historians, yes, and world historians who I talk to, yes. But conventional early 16th century Dutch historians? No.

Almost all scientists I know are interested in the humanities and social sciences. Many people in the humanities I know are not interested in science and are ignorant in science. This is something one sees more explicitly in the humanities-based publications like the New York Review of Books or the The New Yorker. The New Yorker does not publish articles by scientists.

WHC: I remember some years ago that The New Yorker published John McPhee’s series on California geology [later the basis for McPhee’s book Assembling California]. Was that just an exception?

DIAMOND: I don’t think of John McPhee as a scientist. The New Yorker publishes articles about science, but not by scientists.

WHC: Do you find that a problem?

DIAMOND: Yes, I find that a serious problem.

WHC: Why?

DIAMOND: Though the accounts of science that one reads in The New Yorker make good reading, they involve serious misunderstandings about science. I think I’ll stop at that point, because I don’t want to mention any names.

April 2008

Jared Diamond article “Vengeance is Ours” published in April 21, 2008 issue of The New Yorker.


Jared Diamond sued by subjects of error-filled article in The New Yorker.

big sky, country

Who would have thought that in a democracy based on geographic representation, elected officials would have the effrontery to announce that their policies would help their constituents? But it’s happening. Despite all the talk about not having earmarks in the stimulus, despite all the talk of a new tone in Washington, people who voted for the stimulus bill are now announcing that it’s a good bill that will help people in their home districts.

Take the example of Max Baucus from this recent report (links in the original):

Other remarks describe projects that really don’t count as earmarks, but in a new, bacon-barded tone. “Senate Passes Jobs Bill that Will Pump Money into Montana,” reads the title of a statement from the office of Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. (Compare that to “Senator’s Plan to Create Jobs, Cut Taxes Advances,” only a couple weeks earlier.) But the Montana money he mentions is distributed by formula through programs that will be available to all states.

These remarks contrast with the earlier tone most Democrats adopted to build support and stanch a political bleed that accelerated in proportion to the bill’s rising price tag. Stock press releases like House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s (D-MD) described a bill with “unprecedented levels of accountability” that “will create American jobs now” but declined to go into local details.

Yes, let’s compare those two Baucus press releases. (Hoyer will have to wait.)

The most recent is dated February 10, 2009 and has the headline and subheadline:


Baucus, Tester Praise Bill That Will Create Good-paying Jobs, Cut Taxes, Boost Economy

The earlier press release is dated January 27, 2009 and has the headline and subheadline:


Senator’s Plan To Create Jobs, Cut Taxes Advances

Notice anything odd about this? For one thing, the reporter has compared the headline of the first release with the subheadline of the second. I don’t see why he couldn’t make the same comparison headline to headline.

But that’s a minor problem compared with the dates. The premise of the whole article is that:

And as the [stimulus] bill cleared its final legislative hurdles Friday, so did some congressional Democrats who tallied their handiwork in dispatches to constituents. [Note: what’s going on with the parallel structure here?] Members switched from guarded rhetoric about a pork-free package to messages plugged with lardoons to highlight local projects, industry boons and in some cases, specific programs squeezed into the bill by individual lawmakers.

Ok, but that Friday was the 13th. The most recent Baucus press release is dated on the 10th, after the Senate passed its version of the bill but before the conference report was agreed to. If Baucus changed his tone between one release and the other, it didn’t come as a result of that Friday’s events. I suppose this could be waved off as another minor problem with the article: once the bill got through the Senate, there wasn’t much doubt that a conference report would be approved eventually and that the bill would be signed into law. Still, the 10th is not the 13th.

But, leaving the date discrepancy aside, did Baucus change his tone from one release to another? Did he start promoting provisions in the stimulus that would benefit Montana which he had refrained from mentioning before? Did Baucus adopt a “new bacon-barded tone”?

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 Atlantis mythly

Let’s not get carried away. The scientists discovered no traces of human habitation in the Lost City, let alone a Patrick-Duffy-lookalike sub-species of homo sapiens, but it must be more than a coincidence that they discovered something deep under the Atlantic that looked to them like a ‘lost city’ in a place known as ‘Atlantis’. Perhaps some time from the ninth to the seventh century BC, some ancient Phoenicians had got blown adrift as they tried to circumnavigate Africa and someone had fallen overboard and been sucked down to the deepest depths by a freak current during a freak tsunami, and had briefly seen the white chimneys and imagined it was a lost city, his imagination somewhat disorientated by the intravenous bubbles of the bends.

Perhaps with his last gasp, this hypothetical Phoenician deep-sea-diver-despite-himself had described what he had seen to his shipmates, and they had passed the information on to the Egyptians, who wrote it up in hieroglyphs. And perhaps the Egyptians had passed it on to Solon of Athens (flourished c.600 BC), and perhaps Solon had passed it on to Critias the Elder, who passed it on to his grandson Critias the Tyrant, just as Critias’ cousin Plato insisted. After all, have scientists not discovered just such grains of truth in the stories of the Flood (the creation of the Black Sea) or of Exodus (a reddish algal bloom that might, had it occurred, have been misinterpreted as blood, and have driven out the frogs to produce a salientian plague and an explosion in the fly population; volcanic activity leading to an opportune parting of the Red Sea or of a similar-sounding stretch of water)?

Well, haven’t they?

I expected the linked piece to be mostly about the search for Atlantis, but it’s more a reflection on the task of the historian in general, and on the work of Pierre Vidal-Naquet, in particular:

In his little history of Plato’s myth therefore the two sides of his historical activism come together: on the one hand, the analysis of the myth qua myth, a work of imagination, produced for a specific purpose in a specific historical context by an ingenious enemy of historians; on the other, the narrative of failures to recognise Plato’s hoax for what it was. Here history appears above all as work to be done and truth as something to be fought for, in need of constant subsidy over years, decades and centuries.

But perceived parallels between Atlantis and the Dreyfus Affair mean that Vidal-Naquet perhaps overemphasises the role of raison d’état in the success of Atlantomania and they provoke him to set up a binary opposition between total truth and total lies, between purely imaginative works of construction and historical events, an opposition that is neither plausible nor necessary. It is not, after all, completely impossible that the Egyptians did notice and record the submersion of Santorini, that Plato noticed the submersion of Helike or indeed of other cities, that there were traditions about a lost city or a lost continent, that information was garbled in time and translation. I would be surprised if that were so, but even if I were surprised I don’t see how that would make the slightest bit of difference to Vidal-Naquet’s argument. What could be more effective for a writer interested in reality-effects than a touch of reality itself? The most dangerously seductive myths are the ones that are sprinkled with the little-seeming grains of seeming truth.

in their day

What was scholarship like back in the golden days?

When I started reading blogs a few years ago, I paid a lot of attention to the kinds of discussions of higher education discussed in that link. Partly because I was then still a graduate student and still thinking of becoming an academic; partly because, though I did not know this then, such discussions are a staple of the academic blogosphere and it was hard to avoid them; and partly because, in those early days, it felt like they were heading somewhere productive.

I no longer read those discussions as closely, partly because I am no longer a graduate student and no longer thinking about an academic career; partly because they are staples of the academic blogosphere and I’ve changed my reading habits; and partly because I grew increasingly frustrated reading them.

I’m not really invested in this anymore – I, of course, continue to care about higher education, but I’m not currently in a position where I can do much to affect it – so I’ll just leave it at that. (Though I should note that I’m not criticizing Tim Burke here; I’m linking to his post because it’s about the kind of discussions I’ve largely stopped reading closely, not because it’s an example of one.) I read a bunch of discussions, I got frustrated, I began to focus on other things. But before I turned away, I briefly turned even more towards.

Almost invariably discussions of the present and future of higher education involve claims about the past, but quite often these claims are made without explicit reference to such scholarship as may exist on the subject. Was it really the case that professors/students/universities used to do/know X? While an answer to that question cannot, by itself, answer the question of whether professors/students/universities should, currently or in the future, do/know X, it would still be valuable to have an answer, if there is one (and to acknowledge that there is a legitimate historical question when there is not). I became convinced that rather than read fewer discussions of higher education I should read more – and not just online, but in book form.

I was already interested in the history of the practice and study of history, and as a result had been thinking about the history of higher education anyway. I had also begun to pick up an interest in intellectual history which gradually led me to start reading about humanism and the Renaissance. And as luck would have it, around the same time I came across a couple of podcasts of Anthony Grafton talking about the history of history (probably related to this book, which has been published since I listened to the lectures, and which I hope to read some day).

And that led me to a book Grafton wrote with Lisa Jardine about the history of education, From Humanism to the Humanities, which came out in 1986. I lack the background – I don’t know Latin, for instance – to understand some of the specific issues or examples they discuss but found it a worthwhile read nevertheless; Grafton and Jardine have a lot to say about humanism and education conceptually that should be valuable whatever your favored time period. Rather than try to summarize the book myself, here’s Grafton looking back over a decade later:

More than twenty years ago, Lisa Jardine and I began work on what became, in 1986, From Humanism to the Humanities. In those distant days, when leisure suits were worn without irony and disco was the object not of nostalgia but of passion, the culture wars had not yet begun. A single issue fascinated both of us–one more or less the reverse of the issue that most engages Findlen and Gouwens, and one quite unconnected with the problems of the age of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. In histories of humanist education, we read what amounted to vivid, three-dimensional evocations of the humanist school–re-creations of it as a theater of pleasure and passion, a place of direct contact between students of high sensibility and the ancients with whom they hoped to speak. In the primary documents, by contrast, we encountered the remains of something quite different–a system apparently based on, and often confined to, drill and indoctrination. We found the contradiction exciting–not because we thought the various forms of evidence we uncovered could tell “the whole story” of humanist education but because we thought that they must be used by anyone who wanted to create an account of the humanist school that did some justice to the lived experience of its pupils. We never claimed that classroom notes–or any other single source–offered a complete record of the transactions among teacher, text, and pupil. In fact, we cited a wide range of evidence, from the notes of students to the rituals of teachers, and even attended to the ways in which some teachers tried to make their students speak and act as Romans, in classical settings. We wanted to argue that a three-dimensional re-creation of humanist education had to include, and in part to rest on, these materials–as opposed to the educational manifestoes, the equivalent of modern college catalogues and web sites, in which teachers described what they offered. In advancing this argument, as we said, we followed the lead offered by historians of classical education in antiquity–above all, H.-I. Marrou. But we also had in mind our own experiences as teachers, which had led us to believe that any full account of modern university life must pay attention to the messages students actually receive–as opposed to those that teachers transmit. A recording of a lecture tells one less about the students’ experience than the teacher’s erudition and eloquence, unless one can read against it the notes that students actually took and the exams on which they tried to use what they learned.

Using a language that, read in retrospect, resounds quaintly with the struggles of the 1960s, we set out to argue that the school, for most of its inhabitants, did not resemble Machiavelli’s study or Colocci’s dinner parties. We also tried to suggest some of the reasons why a system of education that did not sparkle when examined closely still won the loyalty of so many patrons and parents. But by the time our book finally appeared, ignorant–and learned–armies were clashing by night over the canon. Both our conservative and our radical readers often interpreted our book in ways hardly consonant with our intentions–and connected it with intellectual movements that had not existed when we began work. Even though we succeeded in stimulating debate over what had previously been a staid realm of Renaissance studies, much of it hardly followed the paths we had expected, and not all of it was productive. This personal note, moreover, suggests a second point of wider methodological interest. In describing the humanist school as we did, Lisa Jardine and I meant to suggest that Renaissance experiences of antiquity differed radically. The differences depended in part on whether the one doing the experiencing was male or female, child or adult, patrician or plebeian; in part on where, and in what circumstances, the reader went to work. Some intellectuals met the ancients as adults, colliding with them head on, asking personal questions and receiving detailed answers (our “charismatic teachers” certainly had such experiences)–especially in the long years they lived after school was out. But others met the ancients as texts, on paper; they never saw Cicero, in their minds’ eyes, standing at his podium to denounce the enemies of Rome, but they memorized many lists of adjectives and figures of speech, which they later obediently reproduced in endless passages of patchwork Latin prose. The Renaissance could be, and sometimes was, a passionately lived revival of the antique. But it could also be, and often was, a long subjection to a discipline, the ultimate purpose of which remained unclear.

[From Anthony Grafton, “The Revival of Antiquity: A Fan’s Notes on Recent Work” [JSTOR] AHR, Vol. 103, No. 1. (Feb., 1998), pp. 118-121 (part of a forum [JSTOR link to journal issue] on “The Persistance of the Renaissance”)]

s is for scholar

Matthew Yglesias gets a cake upon which various words have been misspelled in his honor. Garance Franke-Ruta speculates:

As blogs move us into a less heavily copy-edited world, I sometimes wonder if we’re moving back into a more 16th and 17th century form of writing, where the idea of correct spelling was less important than the communication of meaning — which, in reality, can be accomplished just as well with incorrectly spelled words and homonyms as with a more perfect language. And also: as we move ever deeper into this new world of speech-like writing, will the perfect, formal language of the page one day seem as antique and elaborate as Victorian silverware?

So far, only one person has commented on her post and it’s none other than Anthony Grafton – no stranger to old pamphlets – who notes (side-stepping the question of spelling for the perhaps more interesting question of editing):

Actually, most printing-houses in the 16th and 17th century had professional copy-editors–the so-called correctors, whose title came from their chief task of proof correction. They also prepared copy, correcting errors of style and fact, and added punctuation. It’s true that pamphlets weren’t always corrected: but most renaissance writers expected that their work would be gone over, corrected and polished before the public saw it.

For my part, I wonder how the state of English spelling at the time compared with that of other European languages. Were they similarly non-standardized?

history vs. memory, round [some large number written in Roman numerals]

A while back in comments elsewhere, I wondered about a story I’ve heard about the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates. Supposedly, Nixon did better among radio listeners and Kennedy did better among television viewers. But there’s a problem with that account: there were actually four debates. Do the stories refer to just the first one? (I suspect yes.) Or does this refer to some kind of overall response to the debates?

And then there’s an even bigger question: while no doubt there were individual radio-listeners who favored Nixon and tv-watchers who favored Kennedy, is the aggregate story even true?

The answer appears to be “no“:

The first Kennedy-Nixon debate in the 1960 presidential campaign has lived on in memory as a turning point not so much because of what the candidates said but rather because of how they looked. Kennedy looked like … well, Kennedy, and Nixon looked like an especially unflattering caricature of himself. Everyone “knows” that Nixon’s unattractive appearance led him to be perceived as the loser of the debate. However, the evidence that supports that conclusion turns out upon inspection, to be somewhere in the range of weak to nonexistent. Until Druckman’s study, the only reasonably credible evidence came from a post-debate survey that indicated that those who had listened to the debate on the radio were more likely to think Nixon had won, but those who watched it on television were more likely to see Kennedy as the winner. That’s a nifty result, if valid, but Druckman questions its validity for a host of methodological reasons that I won’t go into here except to say that they’re pretty compelling.

Or is the answer “yes”?

As a strictly historical matter it does not look like it can be settled. The only documentation is that survey, but the survey is apparently too flawed to be relied upon. But as a political science matter…well, just click through. I have my doubts that a group of “mostly undergraduate students” shown the debate decades later, outside of the context of the campaign, and after the Nixon and Kennedy legacies have become part of the world they grew up in, can settle anything about the contemporaneous response to the debate. There is evidence, however, that viewing vs. listening can make a real difference among audiences today.

(I’d link to the Druckman study, but it’s paywalled and I don’t have access and haven’t been able to read it for myself.)

Update: You can find the study, which I still haven’t yet read, in pdf form here.


The comments to this post – and the subject of the post itself – reminded me of something I wondered about some years back when I was thinking of the different ways different countries have approached dramatic transitions from one type of regime to another, such as the transition from authoritarianism to some form of democracy, or from a slave society to a free* society.

After the American Civil War, a number of legal restrictions were placed – at least temporarily – on people who served the Confederacy, but was anyone post-13th Amendment ever prosecuted or sued for the crime of slavery** committed before passage of the amendment? I suspect the answer if no, but I’m not asking rhetorically. I’m curious if suits were filed but thrown out of court.

*Recognizing that the failure of Reconstruction limited just how free that former slave society became.

**I’m not sure if one could literally sue someone for slavery or if it technically would have had to have been a suit against something like “unlawful imprisonment.” But you know what I mean.