Archive for the ‘History’ category

Paul Revere’s Metadata

June 10, 2013

This is a sophisticated audience, so I’ve no doubt folks here grasp how intrusive (i.e. revealing) metadata can be.  But even those fully up on network analysis and related crafts may find this from  Kieren Healy amusing — and useful in explaining why this stuff does matter to your friends and family who may be in the “if they’re not listening in, I don’t care” crowd:

Grant_Wood_The_Midnight_Ride_of_Paul_Revere_1931

London, 1772.

I have been asked by my superiors to give a brief demonstration of the surprising effectiveness of even the simplest techniques of the new-fangled Social Networke Analysis in the pursuit of those who would seek to undermine the liberty enjoyed by His Majesty’s subjects. This is in connection with the discussion of the role of “metadata” in certain recent events and the assurances of various respectable parties that the government was merely “sifting through this so-called metadata” and that the “information acquired does not include the content of any communications”. I will show how we can use this “metadata” to find key persons involved in terrorist groups operating within the Colonies at the present time. I shall also endeavour to show how these methods work in what might be called a relational manner.

The analysis in this report is based on information gathered by our field agent Mr David Hackett Fischer and published in an Appendix to his lengthy report to the government. As you may be aware, Mr Fischer is an expert and respected field Agent with a broad and deep knowledge of the colonies. I, on the other hand, have made my way from Ireland with just a little quantitative training—I placed several hundred rungs below the Senior Wrangler during my time at Cambridge—and I am presently employed as a junior analytical scribe at ye olde National Security Administration. Sorry, I mean the Royal Security Administration. And I should emphasize again that I know nothing of current affairs in the colonies. However, our current Eighteenth Century beta of PRISM has been used to collect and analyze information on more than two hundred and sixty persons (of varying degrees of suspicion) belonging variously to seven different organizations in the Boston area.

Rest assured that we only collected metadata on these people, and no actual conversations were recorded or meetings transcribed. All I know is whether someone was a member of an organization or not. Surely this is but a small encroachment on the freedom of the Crown’s subjects. I have been asked, on the basis of this poor information, to present some names for our field agents in the Colonies to work with. It seems an unlikely task.

So what did our humble toiler in the fields find?

…Mr Revere—along with Messrs Urann, Proctor, and Barber—appears towards the top or our list.

So, there you have it.  From a table of membership in different groups we have gotten a picture of a kind of social network between individuals, a sense of the degree of connection between organizations, and some strong hints of who the key players are in this world. And all this—all of it!—from the merest sliver of metadata about a single modality of relationship between people…

I admit that, in addition to the possibilities for finding something interesting, there may also be the prospect of discovering suggestive but ultimately incorrect or misleading patterns. But I feel this problem would surely be greatly ameliorated by more and better metadata. At the present time, alas, the technology required to automatically collect the required information is beyond our capacity. But I say again, if a mere scribe such as I—one who knows nearly nothing—can use the very simplest of these methods to pick the name of a traitor like Paul Revere from those of two hundred and fifty four other men, using nothing but a list of memberships and a portable calculating engine, then just think what weapons we might wield in the defense of liberty one or two centuries from now.

Much more good stuff at the link, showing the steps of a simple network analysis (and offering further links to the underlying data, if anyone wants to play with the idea a bit themselves.  Also, Healy pointed to this paper by Shin-Kap Han (PDF), which performs a similar analysis on the roles of Paul Revere and Joseph Warren in much greater depth.

Image:  Grant Wood, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, 1931

Happy Emancipation Day

January 1, 2013

One hundred and fifty years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Emancipation_proclamation

Here’s the money quote:

Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

The proclamation was limited, as the National Archives’ online exhibit on the document (linked above) makes clear:

It applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Northern control. Most important, the freedom it promised depended upon Union military victory.

It was, however, critical:

Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in the nation, it captured the hearts and imagination of millions of Americans and fundamentally transformed the character of the war. After January 1, 1863, every advance of federal troops expanded the domain of freedom. Moreover, the Proclamation announced the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy, enabling the liberated to become liberators. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union and freedom.

Major_Martin_Delany

Lincoln faced criticism at the time for the proclamation — from the Confederacy, of course, who threatened all kinds of terrors for any captured black soldiers and their officers, black or white — and also from some of his own supporters, for whom the cautious limitations of the document seemed weak in the face of an obvious moral imperative.  Most famously, in the autumn of 1862, Lincoln himself disavowed overt abolitionism in the most public of possible ways in a letter to Horace Greeley, the great abolitionist publisher and editor of the The New York Tribune. Historian Eugene Berwanger writes:

Between the cabinet meeting in July and the issuance of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, Lincoln sought to prepare the citizenry for its impact. Hence the letter to Horace Greeley on August 22, in which Lincoln offered ample justification of his views on slavery vis à vis the Union. “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by Page  [End Page 31] freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about salvery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help save the Union.”…

Caution, constraint, a limited view of ends — all on display there, in what seems as clear as could be an indictment of the limits of Lincoln’s moral universe.  Except, of course, that Lincoln was no Elijah, a prophet alone, with no duty but to the compulsion within.  Berwanger continues:

However, when the letter is given proper chronological context, showing that Lincoln had already formulated the Emancipation Proclamation and was merely awaiting the propitious moment for its announcement, the statement takes on a different tone. It was Lincoln’s own way of softening the blow of military emancipation for the conservative elements. In a sense, he was preparing the public for what he knew was to come. By stressing the Union as his primary concern, Lincoln hoped to make emancipation more palatable for those opposing it. And, of course, the best way to reach as wide an audience as possible was through the New York Tribune, the largest newspaper in the nation. Even as he issued the final document to the nation in 1863, Lincoln continued to stress the theme of military necessity for emancipation.

And what of the actual limits of the Proclamation, most notably the refusal to free slaves already under Union authority?  Here’s a reminder of the circumstances in which Lincoln constructed his document:

… Lincoln, ever the careful lawyer, knew that his presidential `war powers’ only ran as far as actual warfare ran, and neither the border states nor the occupied districts were at war with federal authority on January 1, 1863. Making the proclamation legally challenge-proof forced him to restrain “my oft expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free,” as well as muting any flights of eloquence about justice. Still, the Proclamation not only provided the legal title to freedom that slaves could claim once the Union armies arrived, it also opened the gates to the enlistment of black soldiers in the Union army. And once in the uniform of the Union, Lincoln could no longer keep up the pretense of denying blacks equal civil rights. “As I live,” Lincoln promised a crowd of jubilant blacks in Richmond in April, 1865, “no one shall put a shackle on your limbs, and you shall have all the rights which God has given to every other free citizen of this Republic.”

I’ll leave as a sermon unsaid the resonance Lincoln’s reticence in the face of political realities may have during the presidency of his first African-American successor.  Better, I think, simply to celebrate the day when the United States took one step — a great one, but only one — towards its ideal of a more perfect Union.

A lagniappe:  I heard on the radio today that Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society performed yesterday at the Museum of African American History in town, singing selections from their concert in 1863 celebrating the promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation.  According to the report I heard, the program included this piece.

(and yes — I know that this performance is not from H & H.  I liked some of the other associations.  Sue me.)

Images: Francis Bicknell Carpenter, First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln, 1864

Unknown artist, lithograph portrait of Major Martin R. Delaney, the highest ranking black officer in the Union Army 1865.

The Uses of the Past: Science/Science Writing Talk

January 17, 2012

I’ve always found that the best way to tackle a complicated story – in science or anything else, for that matter – is to think historically.  But even if I’m right in seeing a historical approach as an essential tool for writers, that’s not obviously true, however well (or not) it may work for me.  Science news is or ought to be new; science itself, some argue, is devoted to the task of relentlessly replacing older, less complete, sometimes simply wrong results with present-tense, more comprehensive, and right (or right-er) findings.

Thinking about this, I put together a panel on the Uses of the Past that was held at last year’s World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha, Qatar.  The panelists – Deborah Blum, Jo Marchant, Reto Schneider and Holly Tucker led a  discussion that was lively and very supportive of the history-is-useful position (not to mention valuable in itself).  But the conversation was far from complete.

So we’re going to do it again, this time at Science Online 2012. (You can follow all the fun by tracking what will be in a few days a tsunami on Twitter, tagged as #scio12).  This is an “unconference,” which means that I and my co-moderator, Eric Michael Johnson, will each present what amounts to a prompt – really a goad – for the audience/participants to run away with.  As Eric and I have discussed this session, one thing has stood out:  where I’ve thought of the term “uses of the past” as a challenge to writers about science for the public, an opening into approaches that will make their work better, Eric has been thinking about the importance of historical thinking to the practice of science itself – what working scientists could gain from deeper engagement not just with the anecdotes of history, but with a historian’s habits of mind.  So just to get everyone’s juices flowing, Eric and I thought we’d try to exchange some views.  Think of this as a bloggy approach to that old form, the epistolary novel, in which we try to think about the ways in which engagement with the past may matter across fields right on the leading edge of the here and now.

So.  Here goes…

____________________________________________________________

Dear Eric,

I have to confess; I’ve never needed convincing about history; I’m a historian’s son, and all my writing, just about, has had a grounding in the search for where ideas and events come from.

But all the same, it’s simply a fact that the professional scientific literature from which so many stories for the public derive seems, on first glance, to be as present-tense as it is possible to be.   As I write this, I’m looking at the table of contents of <a href=”http://www.sciencemag.org/content/335/6064.toc”>my latest (January 6) digital issue of <em>Science</em></a>. In the “Reports” section – where current findings are deployed — there is nothing but the now and the near future under discussion.  Just to pull up a few of pieces at whim:  we can learn of the fabrication of wires on the nano-scale that obey Ohm’s law (an accomplishment its makers claim will support advances in both classical and quantum computing to come).  We can read of a new measurement of the ratio of isotopes of tungsten (performed by some of my MIT colleagues in concert with researchers at the University of Colorado) that suggests (at least as a preliminary conclusion) that the terranes that make up the earth’s continents have remained resistant to destruction over most of the earth’s history. And then there is a report from researchers into that living genetics/evolution textbook, <em>C. elegans</em>, that adds yet one more telling detail within a broader understanding of the intertwined behavior of genetic and environmental processes.

All of these – and all the rest of what you can find in this issue of that journal, and so many others – tell you today’s news.  Each of these could form the subject of a perfectly fine popular story.  Yet none of these do or necessarily would as popular stories engage the history that lies behind the results.

That is: you could tell a story of a small step taken towards the goal of building a useful quantum computer without diving into either the nineteenth century’s investigation into the properties of electrical phenomena or the twentieth century’s discovery of the critical role of scale on the nature of physical law.  You can talk about the stability of continents without recognizing the significance of that research in the context of the discovery of the intensely dynamic behavior of the earth’s surface.  You certainly may write about mutation rates and stress without diving into that old fracas, the nature-nurture argument that goes back to Darwin’s day and before.  This is just as true for the researcher as the writer, of course.  Either may choose to ignore the past without impairing their ability to perform the immediate task at hand:  the next measurement, the next story.

You could, that is, but, at least In My Humble Opinion, you shouldn’t.  From the point of view of this science writer, history of science isn’t a luxury or an easy source of ledes; rather, it is essential for both the making of a better (competent) science writer, and in the production of science writing that communicates the fullest, most useful, and most persuasive account of our subject to the broad audiences we seek to engage.

In briefest form, I argue (and teach my students) that diving into the history of the science one cover trains the writer’s nose, her or his ability to discern when a result actually implies a story (two quite different things). It refines a crucial writer’s tool, the reporter’s bullshit detector. At the same time, explicitly embedding historical understanding in the finished text of even the most present-and-future focused story is, I think, more or less invaluable if one’s goal is not simply to inform, but to enlist one’s readers in gerunds of science:  doing it, thinking in the forms of scientific inquiry, gaining a sense of the emotional pleasures of the trade.  I’ll talk more about both of these claims when my turn comes around…but at this point, I think I should stop and let you get a word in edgewise.  Here’s a question for you:  while I can see the uses of the past for writers seeking to extract from science stories that compel a public audience – do working scientists need to care that much about their own archives.  What does someone pounding on <em>C. elegans</em> stress responses, say really need to know about the antecedents of that work?

Best,

Tom

____________________________________________________________

Dear Tom,

The British novelist, and friend of Aldous Huxley, L.P. Hartley began his 1953 novel <em>The Go-Between</em> with a line that, I suspect, many working scientists can relate to, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The process of science, much like the process of art, is to dredge through what has been achieved in the past in order to generate something altogether new. That is perhaps the only thing that the two fields of creative endeavor have in common; the past must be understood only so that you can be released from it. However, much like you, I’ve never needed convincing about history either. While I agree that the past can be a foreign country at times, I’ve always enjoyed traveling.

I came to history through my work in science, but I found that understanding the historical context for why scientists in the past came to the conclusions they did helped inform the questions I was asking. I’ve always believed that the scientific method was the best way of eliminating our own personal biases when seeking answers about the natural world, but that unexamined assumptions can still slip through the scientific filter. By examining how these flawed assumptions made it through I hoped it would help me in my own work. Perhaps the best way to explain what I mean by this is to briefly discuss how an early brush with history encouraged me into the research direction I ultimately pursued in graduate school. The book was <em><a href=”http://www.amazon.com/Natures-Body-Londa-Schiebinger/dp/080708901X”>Nature’s Body</a></em> by the Stanford historian of science Londa Schiebinger that I found in a used bookstore during my senior year as an undergraduate in anthropology and biology. In one chapter of her book she discussed the early history of primate research and how the prevailing assumptions about gender influenced the hypotheses and, as a result, the conclusions about those species most similar to ourselves. One of the earliest descriptions of great apes in the West, after <a href=”http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=415874″>Andrew Battell’s exaggerated stories about “ape monsters,”</a> was by the Dutch physician Nicolaes Tulp, probably the most widely recognized figure in the history of science that almost no one has ever heard of.

In 1632 Tulp commissioned the artist Rembrandt to paint his anatomy lesson, which ended up being one of the Dutch master’s most famous works (if anyone today recognizes Tulp’s name, it’s most likely from the title of this painting). Nearly a decade after he posed for this portrait Tulp published his Observationes Medicae (Medical Observations) in which he described the anatomy of a female ape he’d received on a ship bound from Angola. He was immediately struck by the similarities with humans and the drawing he published, identified as Homo sylvestris, demonstrated a striking example of cultural bias. Made to look the way he assumed this female would appear while alive, Tulp emphasized his own culture’s gender stereotypes. The female sat with her hands in her lap, framing what appeared to be a pregnant belly, and her head was glancing downwards in a distinctly demure pose.

By itself this depiction wouldn’t have been particularly revealing; it was just one individual allowing their own social biases to influence his science. What was remarkable, however, is the way Schiebinger showed how Tulp’s depiction would appear time and time again in the subsequent centuries when describing female primates, not just in appearance but also in behavior. More than two hundred years later, when Darwin described the differences between males and females in his theory of sexual selection, he had the same unmistakable gender bias that influenced his thinking. I had never taken a women’s studies course in my life, but this insight was an enormous wake up call for me. I realized there had been a common set of assumptions that endured for centuries, what the historian Arthur Lovejoy called “the spirit of the age,” and had gone unexamined until relatively recently when a new generation of primatologists–such as Jane Goodall, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, and Frans de Waal–began studying the female half of the equation that had been largely ignored as an important area of study. Knowing this history pushed me to ask different questions and focus on a topic that I discovered hadn’t been addressed before: why female bonobos had such high levels of cooperation despite the fact that they had a low coefficient of genetic relatedness (violating the central premise of <a href=”http://scienceblogs.com/primatediaries/2010/05/punishing_cheaters.php”>Hamilton’s theory of kin selection</a>). Different scientific topics have their own entrenched assumptions that otherwise critical researchers may not have considered; that is, until they see the broad patterns that a historical analysis can reveal.

Cheers,

Eric

____________________________________________________________

Dear Eric,

I love your story, partly because the original painting is so extraordinary and it’s good to have any excuse to revisit it.  But I value it more for your argument that engaging with the thought and thinking (not quite the same thing) of scientists past fosters insight into present problems.  That goes just as much for science writers – that is to say, those seeking to communicate to a broad public both knowledge derived from science and the approaches, the habits of thought that generate those results.

Rembrandt’s painting itself gives some hints along this line.  There’s a marvelous and strange discussion of the work in another novel written in English, W. G. Sebald’s <em><a href=”http://www.amazon.com/Rings-Saturn-W-G-Sebald/dp/0811214133/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1326733737&sr=1-1″>The Rings of Saturn</a></em>.  There, Sebald points to the fact that none of the anatomists are actually looking at the corpse under the knife. Tulp himself stares out into the middle distance, whilst other members of his guild peer instead at an anatomical atlas open at the foot of the table. As Sebald studies the one of the often-discussed details of the painting, he argues that what appears to be simply an error in the depiction of the <a href=”http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17225789″>dissection of the left</a> hand reveals an artist seeking to see past the formal abstraction of the lesson, drawing attention instead to the actual body on the table, the physical reality of a single dead man.

Not wishing to push too hard on that (unproven, unprovable) interpretation, Sebald still points out something that rewards the attention of science writers.  Rembrandt depicts both facts — the body, the tendons of the exposed hand – and ideas, at a crucial moment of change in the way natural philosophers sought verifiable knowledge.

We see, amidst the reverence for the book, the authority of prior learning, an event actually occurring on the canvas:  the effort to extract understanding from the direct testimony of nature. Amidst all else that can be read there, Rembrandt’s painting reminds the viewer of the time – not really all that long ago – when a fundamental idea was being framed with its first answer:  yes, it is possible to understand biological forms as machines, and to investigate their workings directly.

So, to take the long road home to the question of why bother with history when covering the news of today and tomorrow, here are two thoughts (of the three with which I will hope to provoke our fellow unconferees on Thursday).  First: as you argue for scientists, understanding of the past can lead writers to stories they may not have known were there.

To give an example, I’ll have to leave anatomy behind (about whose history I sadly know very little). I recently had an occasionto look back at <a href=”http://books.google.com/books?id=KniUvcxFtOwC&pg=PA281&lpg=PA281&dq=michelson+sixth+decimal+place+ryerson+physical+laboratory&source=bl&ots=0oDZa8vpy3&sig=6_BQaDfvsUE-G_nLWBmNF8l4boM&hl=en&sa=X&ei=91oUT_3mAeXq0gHvuI22Aw&ved=0CE8Q6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=michelson%20sixth%20decimal%20place%20ryerson%20physical%20laboratory&f=false”>A. A. Michelson’s infamous remark</a> from 1894 when he asserted that physics was done except for that which could be discovered in the sixth decimal places of measurements.

There is a lot wrong in that claim, but if you look more closely at what he said, you can find something less obvious in Michelson’s claim – and that can lead to insight into what goes into the making of all kinds of very modern physics, from (possibly true) observations of faster than light neutrinos to the ways in which cosmologists are extracting knowledge from high-precision measurements of the cosmic microwave background (and much else besides, of course).

So there’s a story-engine chugging away inside history, which is there to be harnessed by any writer – facts, material, from which to craft story.  There’s also a story-telling tool, a method that derives directly from historical understanding.  A core task for science writing is the transformation of technically complicated material into a narrative available to broad audiences – which must be done without doing violence to the underlying ideas.  If the writer remembers that every modern problem has a long past, then she or he can prospect through that history when the problems and results in that sequence are intelligible to any audience.  For just one last, very quick example:  general relativity is a hard concept to explain, but framing the issue that it helped to resolve in the context of what Newton’s (seemingly) simpler account of gravity couldn’t handle – that spooky action at a distance that permits the gravitational attraction of the sun to shape the earth’s orbit – and you’re in with a chance.

Best,

Tom

____________________________________________________________

Dear Tom,

I think you touched on something very important with regard to the idea that science writing is a transformation that takes the technical language of science (primarily mathematics and statistics–that is, if it’s done correctly) and interprets it into the communication of everyday experience. Science writing is a process of translation. The history of science as a discipline is precisely the same thing, though historians typically engage in a different level of linguistic analysis by looking at language meaning and the way that science provides insight into the process of historical change. But it seems that there is no better way to think about how the history of science can be useful to science journalists than to consider what we do as essentially a process of translation. Art is involved in any translation work and there is never a one-to-one correspondence between the original and what it eventually becomes. We must be true to our source material but also evoke the same overall meaning. To put this more simply: why are the findings being reported important to scientists in a given field and how can that same importance be conveyed to a readership with a very different set of experiences? It seems to me that there are two primary ways of doing this: engaging with the history of <em>why</em> this question matters or tapping into contemporary <em>attitudes</em> that evoke connections with the findings reported (where the latter approach <a href=”http://scienceblogs.com/primatediaries/2009/10/grand_evolutionary_dramas_abou.php”>goes wrong</a> happens to be one of my <a href=”http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/primate-diaries/2011/09/02/male-chauvinist-chimps/”>favorite</a&gt; topics of critique, one that is <a href=”http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eric-michael-johnson/intelligent-design-creati_b_636200.html”>unfortunately</a&gt; an extremely rich resource to draw from).

However, there is one other reason why the history of science is important for science journalists that we haven’t quite touched on yet. A journalist who knows their history is better protected from false claims and the distraction of denialism. The scientific press release is a unique cultural invention and all too often seeks to manipulate journalists into framing a given story so as to exaggerate that study’s actual impact. The historically minded journalist is less likely to get bamboozled. In a similar way, the <em>he said-she said</em> model of reporting is a persistent and irritating rash for almost every professional journalist I’ve interacted with. But the temptation to scratch is always present, even though the false equivalency reported is rarely satisfying over the long term. The history of science can be the journalistic topical ointment. Those who know the background of anti-vaccine paranoia, or who recognize the wedge strategy of creationist rhetoric, can satisfy their need to report on a story that captures the public’s attention while also providing useful information to place that issue within it’s proper context. History matters.

Your friend,

Eric


Eric Michael Johnson
Department of History
University of British Columbia

http://www.history.ubc.ca/people/eric-michael-johnson

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/primate-diaries/

Images:  Johannes Vermeer, Lady Writing a Letterbetw. 1665 and 1666.

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533.

Nicholaes Tulp,  “Homo sylvestris” Observationes Medicae, Book III, 56th Observation, 1641

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632

In Praise of Footnotes (Polar Bear Cub/Anything But The Republicans Dept.)

January 11, 2012

Because more or less anything is better than contemplating ten more months of Romney’s self-congratulatory predation of the electorate, I thought I’d try to counter (in some minor way, a jot or a tittle)  the quadrennial sense of despair that comes with the mention of Dixville Notch.

My antidote?

The treasures to be found in those pre-digitized lodes of easter eggs, footnotes in books written by generous minds.

In today’s case, that would be what I found as I finally got my crack at a book I had given my wife this Chanukah, Verdi’s Shakespeare, by one of our national treasures, Garry Wills.  There, in the first chapter, Wills made mention of Winter’s Tale, and its alpha and omega of stage directions: “Exit, pursued by bear.”

That’s one of those bits of theatrical trivia that I can’t remember learning. I think my father was the first person I heard say it, misquoting to “exit hurridly,” whenever he wanted to be gone from something dull — or to get his wild and wired son to bed.  And like most folks (I guess) I always assumed (at least from the time I realized it had something to do with a play, and not a playacting dad) that any action on stage would have been between an actor and some guy in a bear suit.

But no, Wills tells me — laconically, first, in the body of his text, writing that “when it [Shakespeare's troupe] had a  young polar bear on hand, he wrote a scene stopper…”

That was curious enough.  A polar bear?  In London.  In 1610?

Dive into the footnotes, and it gets better:

It used to be thought that the “bear’ was a man in costume.  But scholars have now focused on the fact that two polar bear cubs were brought back from the waters off Greenland in 1609, that they were turned over to Philip Henslowe’s bear collection (hard by the Globe theater), and that polar bears show up in three productions of the 1610-1611 theatrical season….Polar bears become fierce at pubescence and were relegated to bear baiting, but the cubs were apparently still trainable in their  young state.”

Well, that explains that.  But Wills is a kind and giving writer…and so there’s more:

Since polar bears are such good swimmers, the king even turned them loose in the Thames to have aquatic bear baitings.*

Oh, joy! So much out of so little — and what a reward for the virtuous act of actually looking at the endnotes!**  There’s threads of all kinds of historical ideas to pull there — everything from thoughts about the extended pre- or early history of globalizing media to the power of spectacle as social glue, then as now — and much more, of course.  But what pleased me more, I think, as I retold this factoid to the unwary all day, is simply the images that Wills evoked, playing across my mind’s eye.

Which is to say that nothing here has much to do with the price of eggs. But my brain and my world are enriched, just a little, by the thought of a shambling cub, coat too big for its limbs, rising up on its hind legs to glare at the squealing, hooting, transfixed and terrified audience clamoring just beyond the edge of the stage.

Just thought I’d share…

*Wills directs those with yet more interest in the performing beast of Winter’s Tale to Barbara Ravelhofer, “‘Beasts of Recreacion’ Henslowe’s White Bears,” ELR 32 (2202), pp. 287-323 and Teresa Grant, “Polar Performances, The King’s Bear Cubs on the Jacobean Stage,” Times Literary Supplement, June 14, 2002.

**To declare what is, I hope, obvious:  I’m no fan of bear baiting.  Torturing animals for sport is not my idea of a good time or a good act.  But I dearly love gaining glimpses into the past, and it is always important to remember:  that’s a different country, and they do things differently there.

Image:  Albert Bierstadt, Bears in the Wilderness, c. 1870.

Just One Moment to Remember…June 6, 1944.

June 6, 2011

Because there are things that happened in the world before most of us were born, a belated remembrance of the longest day:

H/t for a reminder of the date to Paul Krugman, whose pun on this I cannot top.

Images: Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHOM) Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard, official U.S. Coast Guard photograph, 6 June 1944.

The build-up of Omaha Beach. Reinforcements of men and equipment moving inland. SC193082 {PD-USGov-Military}

Photograph by Taylor, American assault troops of the 3rd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, injured while storming Omaha Beach, wait by the Chalk Cliffs for evacuation to a field hospital for further medical treatment. Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France, 6 June 1944.

Tristan Nitot, The Omaha Beach Cemetery, aka World War II Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, near Colleville-sur-mer in Normandy, France

Quote of the Day: Adam Smith Profiles Barack Obama

March 1, 2011

Reading Nicholas Phillipson’s admirable new(ish) biography of Adam Smith walking to my office this morning, I came across a passage from The Theory of Moral Sentiments that seems to me to capture Obama’s style and theory of governance remarkably well:

When he cannot conquer the rooted prejudices of the people by reason and persuasion …(h)e will accommodate, as well as he can, his public arrangements to the confirmed habits and prejudices of the people; and will remedy as well as he can, the”inconveniencies” which may flow from the want of those regulations which the people are averse to submit to. When he cannot establish the right, he will not disdain to ameliorate the wrong; but like Solon, when he cannot establish the best system of laws, he will endeavour to establish the best that the people can bear.

(The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part VI, Section II, Chapter II, paragraph 41.*)

All this in the context of the discussion to the post immediatelly preceding this one, in which I note Obama’s quiet reversal of one of the Bush administration’s most archtypal illiberal and disempowering attacks on the autonomy of women (and others):  putting an end to the expansive “conscience” (sic) exception that allowed pharmacists and medical professionals to deny reproductive and other services as they chose.

My suggestion that this kind of action helps make clear the distinction between Democrats and Republicans, Obama and Bush — and hence the urgency of the next election — evoked a few sharply argued claims in the comment thread over at the post’s Balloon Juice incarnation that this was mere cosmetics, a little lipstick on the pig that has perpetuated the Bush line in all its essentials.

In that context, Smith’s description of the virtuous leader struck me as remarkably apt:  this seems very much like a capsule portrait of Obama, here captured in the very sharp sight of a thinker whose work is more an inquiry into sociability taken all in all — how humans contrive to live together — than it is, as usually mischaracterized, merely that part of it which is concerned with the economics of such co-existence.

That such an approach may fail — or at least fall well short of producing not merely a somewhat better society, but a good one — is obvious.  But consider the recent alternatives.

Top of the morning to y’all.

*That link takes you direct to an HTML version of Moral Sentiments. For rapid access to a broad Adam Smith archive, the Liberty Forum — broadly part of the Wingnut archipelago —  performs an undeniable service by posting the entire Glasgow Edition of Adam Smiths Works and Correspondence, which was previously available at considerable expense from Oxford University Press.  Browse at will.

Image:  Dosso Dossi, Jupiter, Mercury, and Virtue, ~1520-1530

Heroes vs. Cowards

February 4, 2011

Further — or really, as counterpoint to Dennis G.’s piece over at Balloon Juice on the Confederate Party’s fear of art — let me just say here:

Happy birthday Rosa Parks.

We are two years short of her centennial, but it’s never too soon to notice the difference between those who recognize injustice and act at real personal risk to end it…

…and the other kind.

Image:  Rosa Parks Bus at the Henry Ford Museum.

Quote of the Day (The Philosophical Underpinnings of Galtian Fail–Historical Division) + a touch of self promotion

January 27, 2011

I’m reading a really good book, right now, a new biography of Adam Smith, titled, naturally enough, Adam Smith:  An Enlightened Life, by Nicholas Phillipson.  I’m only about a quarter of the way through it, so I can’t give a real review, but so far it is a model biography:  well written, smart, learned without being oppressive, and above all remarkable in the way it rescues this thinker from the caricature Galtian saint that the market fundamentalists of the right would have him be.

In fact, there’s a passage early on that captures beautifully what the Randian and Tea-Party right (which is to say, the entire Congressional GOP, functionally at least) don’t get about what underpins the wealth and long term health of nations.  In it Phillipson talks about the roots of Smith’s ideas about the way the social world works — or must, if groups of humans are to prosper both materially and morally (two categories always intertwined in Smith’s ideas about human relations).  Discussing Smith’s education in the small-town school of his childhood and  youth, Phillipson writes that Smith was being taught to cultivate

…the ability Robert Burns was to characterize so brilliantly as seeing ourselves as others see us.

Which capacity leads to an approach to life lived in the company of others in which it would be not just possible, but valued to

exchange the company of cronies for the friendship of strangers who belonged to different walks of life….The company of strangers would teach one to moderate one’s own prejudices and would give one more ‘extensive’ views of the world.  It would encourage tolerance, taste, judgment and a respect for that sense of propriety that played such an important part in securing the decencies and pleasures of ordinary life…

The suggestion that exchange — not of goods but of thoughts and conversation — between strangers is an essential element in the forging of a livable life in an increasingly mass-society proved, Nicholson argues, enormously valuable to the young Smith, as it…

…gave him a way of viewing human beings as agents whose lives and happiness depend on their ability to cultivate the moral and intellectual skills they need to live sociably, at ease with themselves, with other and the world. They encouraged him to think of self-command as the essential skill on which sociability, success and personal happiness depends….

Smith wrote Moral Sentiments long before he completed The Wealth of Nations. The latter did not supercede the former; rather it was built upon the ideas Smith developed there about the ways in which a diverse society may endure the encounters of its disparate members.

__

To me, there’s an almost perfect hint to the diagnosis of what ails our Palin-esque friends (and all those who use the marvelously consuming force of her crazy to obscure their own):  what we find there seems a photo-negative opposite to the notions above, that which Smith was absorbing to serve as the foundation for his theory of happy and prosperous social life.

Consider this a belated Robert Burns/Scottish Enlightenment celebration…

…and if I may attach just a bit of a programming announcement, if you want to hear my perfect-face-for-radio-voice this evening, Jay Ackroyd and I will be talking about my book, Newton and the Counterfeiter; the NRA and its hatred of science; and a bit about the post here of a couple of days ago about the possibility of new web-video undermining the hold of Big Cable on TV opinion mongering. Digressions are always possible, and given who’s talking, almost guaranteed.

Time: 9 p.m. EST at Blog Talk Radio, with the chance to take part in the “studio” audience in Second Life at the Virtually Speaking theater.

Image: Adolph von Menzel, Weekday in Paris, 1869

Andrew Bacevich and Me On Tea Parties: Fringe Ephemera, or Brown Shirts Looking for their Couturier

September 15, 2010

Yesterday I attended a fascinating, depressing talk by Andrew Bacevich (live blogged!) in which he discussed the way the Washington consensus on national security is (a) disastrous and (b) perpetuates itself by trading on the myth of Washingtonian competence and the willingness of those beyond the beltway to defer to the presumed superior expertise and access to hidden information of the national security elite.

He made a powerful case, fleshed out in his new book, Washington Rules, positing that American national security thinking (such as it is) rests on two poles. First there is a “credo”:  that “the US and the US alone should lead, save, liberate, transform the world.” (Bacevich added yesterday that his choice of verbs was deliberate — they are all those used by American policymakers.) And then there is his trinity  — the idea that the US should maintain a global military presence, configured for power projection, and used for that purpose as needed.  (And yes, Bacevich at one point did refer to his atavistic commitment to the Catholic Church of his raising, as if you couldn’t tell…;)

Go check out the live blog if you want more, or better, buy his book.  My focus here is on an answer he gave to a question late in the session, on what he made of the meaning of the rise of Tea Party.  Here, as close to a transcript as I could make it, is his answer:

My bet is that the Tea Party is an epiphenomenon. Despite all the hooptedoo (sic) and the expectations that the Tea Party will have an impact on the elections this November — don’t think that they will be around much longer .  The substance is so thin, and is so based on anger that it isn’t enough to sustain a lasting organization.

I think that’s right…

…but not all that long ago I spent a number of years immersed in the history of 1920s Germany as I was writing Einstein in Berlin.  The book was, as advertised, an account of Einstein’s years in Germany’s capital — 1914-1932, but the question I was really trying to understand was how the 20th century went to hell, using Einstein as my witness at the epicenter of the disaster.

So when Bacevich argued that mere rage and the vague and incoherent sensation that the aggrieved Tea Partiers have somehow been done dirt is not enough to propel a political movement to lasting impact, it immediately reminded me of this:

Asked in December of 1930 what to make of the new force in German politics, he [Einstein] answered that  “I do not enjoy Herr Hitler’s acquaintance.  He is living on the empty stomach of Germany.  As soon as economic conditions improve, he will no longer be important.” Initially, he felt that no action at all would be needed to bring Hitler low.  He reaffirmed for a Jewish organization that the “momentarily desperate economic situation” and the chronic “childish disease of the Republic” were to blame for the Nazi success. “Solidarity of the Jews, I believe, is always called for,” he wrote, “but any special reaction to the election results would be quite inappropriate.”

We know how that turned out — but rather than just make the facile juxtaposition, I’d add that Einstein was almost right, or should have been right.

There was nothing in 1930 to suggest that Hitler was more than just one more raving rightist whom the establishment would dismiss as soon as conditions improved even slightly.  And in fact, through 1930 up to the end of 1932 there remained (IMHO) nothing inevitable about Hitler’s rise to power.  He benefitted from all kinds of chance circumstances, all the while riding (skillfully) the larger and overt waves of economic dislocation and political crisis.  He was certainly helped by the incompetence of his opponents.

But, certainly, even if the attempt to draw exact parallels across historical space and time never work, the lesson of end-stage Weimar Germany is that it is surprisingly easy in moments of crisis for seemingly fringe movements to rise — and that in their ascent, to seize power that could never be theirs in any ordinary time.  And once seized, authority feeds itself — we don’t need to Godwinize the argument to see that; the rapid accumulation of state power by the minority Bush II administration offers plenty of object demonstrations of what happens once folks, however thin or nonexistent their mandate, get their hands on the mechanical levers of power.

All of which is to say I believe we should not wait for the ordinary flow of events to sweep the Tea Party from the stage.  Active opposition is what’s needed, rather than the passive certainty that they’re crazy, wrong, and so openly whacked out that no one could possibly actually hand them the keys to the car.

Above all, what the example of the rise of the Nazis tells us is that rage is enormously powerful, and real hardship combined with a sense of class or race or identity-based grievance is yet more potent.  Tea Partiers, on all the evidence do believe that something has been stolen from them, and plenty of them, including one running for the United States Senate in the state of Nevada (with a reasonable shot at getting in) have suggested that violence to retrieve their God-given right to rule is acceptable, perhaps required.

Bacevich did speak to that as well.  Despite his sense (wrong, in my view) of the minor, temporary danger posed by the rise of the nativist, crazed right, he still  painted a picture of establishment GOPers as analogues (my interpretation) to the elite bosses of the German right:

You may have heard Trent Lott the other day — “We need to co-opt these people.”  And I think that reflects the cynicism of the Republican party –but the GOP is not going to become the Tea Party.

Recall the former Chancellor of Germany, Franz von Papen, crowing at the deal that brought him the Vice Chancellorship to Hitler’s ascension to the top spot in a short lived coalition, replying to charges that he had been had: “You are mistaken.  We have hired him.”

Oops.  Whatever else happens, I think Mike Castle would beg to differ with Mr. Lott.

Just one more thing:  I agree entirely with Bacevich when he said this:  ty ’20s:

You can’t divorce subject of race from all of this — and it is the most troubling part of our current politics.  It seems to me that too many of our fellow citizens refuse to accept the legitimacy of this presidency because it is unacceptable to have a black man as President.  Republicans would deny this, but I think they are lying through their teeth.  Race has not been left in our rear view mirror.

Well, yes.

And if we needed any more glances in the 1930s rearview mirror, then I’d suggest that we have a pretty good idea why in times of crisis demagogues go out of their way to paint as less than properly human a minority group that historically has been corralled into segregated settlements and has been both disdained and feared (by majorities wielding disproportionately more power than their scapegoats) — and we have more than just one precedent of what can happen when they do.

Bacevich bets that the Tea Party cocktail of rage, entitlement, ignorance, viciousness and the studied, cynical attempts at co-option will evaporate as times get less fraught.  I look at the next few months, and think of the three elections of 1932 in Germany, and wonder…if enough of the madness slips into Senate and House seats this fall, how sure can we be the rump of the GOP won’t follow?  And if times remain as hard as they may well through 2012?

Do you feel lucky today?

Well, do you?

I don’t.  I’m finally waking up; my personal enthusiasm gap has closed — I’ve hit the “donate” button three or four times today, and as the election gets closer, I’ll be heading up to New Hampshire to see what I can do to help Paul Hodes get over the hump.  I urge you all to act similarly as your wallets and geography permit.

Images:  Albert Einstein in 1929, playing a benefit concert in a synagogue in support of the Berlin Jewish community.  This is the only photograph I’ve been able to find (and I’ve looked) showing Einstein wearing a yarmulke.

Francisco de Goya, “Courtyard with Lunatics,” 1794

On the lessons Joseph Goebbels taught us: The Right Wing, The Big Lie, and the American Spectator’s latest on the Sherrod Case…

July 26, 2010

(In passing:   many thanks to all who came by this blog over the last couple of days.  Come on back, y’ hear)

Jeremy Lord has received a lot of attention for his post at the American Spectator in which he attempts to set the record straight about Shirley Sherrod and her family’s history with the horror of race-based murder.  (I learned of it first at TPM, via Yglesias, then at Balloon Juice, and then started writing this; I’m sure that the story is all over the blogoverse by now.)

Here, I want to add just one thought about what a little historical resonance may tell us about the character and more importantly the aims of elements of the American right.

But first, the context:

Lord titles his piece “Sherrod Story False.”

Why does he say that of Shirley Sherrod’s telling of the death of her relative Bobby Hall?

Not because Hall wasn’t murdered.  Not because the murder did not take place while he was under arrest.  Not that he wasn’t killed by the three law enforcement officers in whose power he lay.

The facts are not in dispute — not even by Lord, who yet calls Sherrod’s account of them false.  The Supreme Court decision in the case summarized the acknowledge sequence of events:

Robert Hall, then about 30 years old, was in his home late on the night of January 29-30, 1943.  Three local law enforcement officers — Sherriff Claude Screws of Baker County, Georgia, one of his special deputies and a police officer came to his house to arrest him for the alleged theft of a tire.

The officers handcuffed Hall, and put him in a car.  They drove to the local courthouse, and then…well here is Justice Douglas’s account of what happened next:

As Hall alighted from the car at the courthouse square, the three petitioners began beating him with their fists and with a solid-bar blackjack about eight inches long and weighing two pounds. They claimed Hall had reached for a gun and had used insulting language as he alighted from the car. But after Hall, still handcuffed, had been knocked to the ground, they continued to beat him from fifteen to thirty minutes until he was unconscious. Hall was then dragged feet first through the courthouse yard into the jail and thrown upon the floor, dying. An ambulance was called, and Hall was removed to a hospital, where he died within the hour and without regaining consciousness. There was evidence that Screws held a grudge against Hall, and had threatened to “get” him.

No one disputes this telling of the events.  Lord doesn’t.  He details them in his post.  (No linky because I don’t give traffic to such wretched stuff.  If you want to read it in all it’s gory detail, it’s easy enough to find.)

So why does he write this:

Plain as day, Ms. Sherrod says that Bobby Hall, a Sherrod relative, was lynched. As she puts it, describing the actions of the 1940s-era Sheriff Claude Screws: “Claude Screws lynched a black man.”

This is not true. It did not happen.”

Again:  Lord acknowledges the murder, but still says that Sherrod lied when she said this:

Claude Screws lynched a black man. And this was at the beginning of the 40s. And the strange thing back then was an all-white federal jury convicted him not of murder but of depriving Bobby Hall — and I should say that Bobby Hall was a relative — depriving him of his civil rights..

And where is this lie?

Well, Lord writes, it’s here:

…the Supreme Court of the United States, with the basic facts of the case agreed to by all nine Justices in Screws vs. the U.S. Government, says not one word about Bobby Hall being lynched. Why? Because it never happened.

Ahh.

To Lord, being beaten to death by law enforcement while in custody and restrained is not a lynching.

And with that, Lord contemns Sherrod:

It’s also possible that she knew the truth and chose to embellish it, changing a brutal and fatal beating to a lynching. Anyone who has lived in the American South (as my family once did) and is familiar with American history knows well the dread behind stories of lynch mobs and the Klan. What difference is there between a savage murder by fist and blackjack — and by dangling rope? Obviously, in the practical sense, none. But in the heyday — a very long time — of the Klan, there were frequent (and failed) attempts to pass federal anti-lynching laws. None to pass federal “anti-black jack” or “anti-fisticuffs” laws. Lynching had a peculiar, one is tempted to say grotesque, solitary status as part of the romantic image of the Klan, of the crazed racist. The image stirred by the image of the noosed rope in the hands of a racist lynch mob was, to say the least, frighteningly chilling. Did Ms. Sherrod deliberately concoct this story in search of a piece of that ugly romance to add “glamour” to a family story that is gut-wrenchingly horrendous already?

I wanted to quote that at length so that I could not be accused of selective editing. There are no ellipses there.  It’s what Lord wrote, the full statement of his thesis.  Read it, and, I think, weep for an America so clearly unable yet to get its own history.

This is what Lord says: Hall wasn’t taken to the nearest tree, bound by a noose around his neck, and hauled up to dangle from the nearest convenient branch.  And so he wasn’t lynched, and Sherrod lied.  To claim that any other race-terror murder, any other gathering in the night, ignored, abetted, or perpetrated by white law enforcement is a lynching is to play the race card, to claim extraordinary suffering where only ordinary misery exists.

There are only two problems with this…I don’t really know what to call it actually?  Argument?–no.  Analysis?–not hardly. Rhetorical vomit? Bile? Execrescence?…take your pick. They are are complete moral bankruptcy…and the fact that as a matter of law, Lord is simply wrong.

The moral void is I think too obvious to belabor.

So let Lord wallow in his own emptiness; the fact is that he is wrong in his attempt to draw a distinction in law.

Here is how the South Carolina Criminal Code defines the crime in a representative example of state anti-lynching provisions:

The Elements of the Crime:

1.  That a person’s death resulted from the violence inflicted upon him by a mob and

2. That the accused was a member of that mob

(A mob is defined as “an assemblage of two or more persons, without color of law, gathered togethre for the premediatid purpose of commiting violence upon another.”

Strangely, I see no mention of hanging, of trees, of strange fruit in here (nor in Title 18, sec. 241 of the US code, which addresses lynching from a civil rights law angle), just as they somehow fail to specify tire irons or chains, or fire or whatever.  Extrajudicial killings by a mob are lynchings.  That’s it. The particular means by which any given victim is done to death is irrelevant:  it is the mob and the murder that defines the crime.

Well, duh.

Lord may or may not actually believe what he wrote.  If he does he is, as indicated above, a moral imbecile.  If he doesn’t, he’s worse.

In either case, this is an example of the kind of rhetorical deceit that would have made the patron saint of political thuggery-by-deception proud. Joseph Goebbels famously said “Propaganda has nothing to do with the truth.”

By this measure, of course, Lord’s post is a triumph.  It takes someone already the victim of an artful and astonishingly effective hatchet job, pursues one of the most awful incidents in her family history, and tells the world that her accurate account of her relative’s murder is false — and disqualifies her from public regard.  Slick, evil, and just what Dr. Joe would have recognized as the political manipulator’s stock in trade.

I’m not trying to Godwinize myself here.  Rather I want to draw one thread out of this admittedly loaded comparison.

At no time up to the end of 1933 did the Nazi party command a majority allegiance within the German electorate.  They did, however, create a powerful climate of opinion in which their recognizably crazy and fringe politics came to be seen as reasonable and a plausible element in national governance.

At no time did the old right elite among the German political classes intend to deliver real or lasting power to the Hitler and his crew. Notoriously, the failed former German Chancellor Fritz von Papen, after persuading President Hindenburg to invite Hitler to lead a coalition government in which von Papen would serve as Vice Chancellor, crowed “We’ve captured him!”

As we know, it didn’t quite work out that way.

History does not repeat itself precisely, of course (though the famous tragedy-farce sequence seems to pop up from time to time).

But it seems to me to be incredibly dangerous to try to climb back into power on the backs of narratives known to be false.  This is exactly what the leaders of the GOP are doing now, I think, and I want to speak directly to them, and their useful idiots like Lord — be careful what you wish for.

Such attempts never turn out well, and for those who seem to think that there might be advantage to be gained from a “by-any-means-necessary” approach to political combat (perhaps among them, that former Reaganaut, Lord) it might be worth remembering this.  In the case of Germany in the 30s, much wishful thinking turned out very badly indeed not just for the obvious victims of Nazi violence — but for most Germans, including those of von Papen’s class and circle.

Images:  James Joseph Jacques Tissot, “Jesus Wept,” before 1894.

Mobbing the Tories,” US War of Independence era cartoon.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,451 other followers