Wednesday, October 28, 2015

"World History in Two Minutes"

This little video has 19 million views on YouTube, so you may have already seen it--I just saw it this morning.

Although (because?) it's incredibly frenetic, it's effective affective: the images and soundtrack are illegally judiciously chosen and impressively synchronized.

A great deal of the power comes from the rushing onslaught of very familiar, vaguely familiar, and unfamiliar images thrown together. I experience a "microburst" of emotional and intellectual associations, for instance, when the famous image of the fleeing Vietnamese children and U.S. soldiers pops up. But before you can even begin to reflect consciously, the image flurry continues.

And the premises are fascinating. While you watch, think about what view of history it presents--and what is deemed important or insignificant based on what's included and emphasized, and what's left out.

A couple of my own immediate observations (I'd suggest watching it before reading my thoughts):

  • The sequencing of images presents a powerfully progressive view of history--mankind pulling ourselves up from the primordial slime into greatness. 
  • It's also very "presentist." Some of the omissions and emphases are frustrating; others are just plain amusing:
    • It covers the whole period from ancient Egypt to ~1900 in fifteen seconds, but the Second World War alone gets ten full seconds.
    • The First World War--"the Great War"--is completely skipped. 
    • The period from 1900-present is over half of the whole video.
    • We get more images of video games than we do of the entire Greco-Roman period!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Reigning as Christ

I gave the following as a faculty devotion. It's been edited for posting here.
“As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame”
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

What we do is consistent with who we are. Each creature does what he is--acts outwardly what he is inwardly. And who we are, Hopkins says--if we are that just man of grace (that man justified, or made just, by grace)--is Christ.

So who are we? Christ. And what does Christ do? Well, he reigns.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Sunset Tree is an old friend. Those opening lines unfold like a hug after a long absence.

In general I don't listen to pop and indie music as seriously as I did a few years back--I don't regard it as seriously, I suppose.

There are exceptions, though. Some day I'll try to put down in words all that album has done for me over the years. But not today.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Ken Burns' 'The Civil War' & The Lost Cause

John Fea--whose blog is a must-read for anyone interested in American history--linked today to a fascinating post about Ken Burns' The Civil War. In the linked post, historian Kevin Levin writes about The Civil War's "split personality":
[Shelby] Foote spoke 7,653 words compared to the second highest speaker, who spoke 1,112 words... His primary responsibility  was to comment on military matters and he did this quite effectively from telling colorful stories about the experiences of the common soldier in battle to waxing poetic about Nathan Bedford Forrest. He pushed a narrative that remains incredibly popular for people who for whatever reason would rather hold on to a personal memory of the war that is void of the story of slavery and emancipation. What’s left is a popular narrative of brave soldiers fighting for their respective causes. 
Shelby Foote was the star of this documentary and rightly so, but Burns ought to be able to acknowledge all these years later that the amount of air time he was given likely allowed certain viewers to slip through without fully coming to terms with the tough questions of slavery and race. 
I see The Civil War as a wonderful example of the split personality of Civil War memory. On the one hand Burns embraced and even anticipated a robust narrative that deals directly with the tough questions related to slavery and race – one that we’ve seen blossom during the the Civil War 150. At the same time Burns’s film reminds us of the difficulty of fully reconciling this narrative with a lingering Lost Cause narrative.
Ken Burns' The Civil War is my favorite documentary, hands down. Like Fea, I've seen it multiple times, and I'll be showing extended clips of it over the next month as my students study the Civil War. Having said that, it's also a documentary with some significant problems.

Kevin Levin's analysis is spot on. The Civil War reflects a significant break between Burns's own view and that of Foote. As Levin suggests, Foote's prominence owes a lot to his magnetism on screen, which is clear and undeniable. Foote is a master of the fascinating anecdote. I could listen to him talk for hours on end.

But he clearly subscribes to a hefty amount of Lost Cause mythology. As Levin suggests, slavery is constantly pushed to the periphery based on the banal observation that the average Confederate soldier wasn't a slaveowner (as though the causes of wars ever have much of anything to do with the motivations of foot soldiers). Nathan Bedford Forrest gets called an "authentic genius" without any acknowledgement of his post-war role. Foote is allowed to portray Lee as, basically, a kind-hearted fella who hated slavery when all recent research suggests that this is, at best, an absurd oversimplification.*

Burns clearly does not subscribe to Lost Cause mythology. Given that, he should have done a better job of balancing out or contextualizing Foote.

*For the record, I don't think the demonization of Lee as a monster is much better--but I just spent a year as a thesis adviser to a student who was trying to insist that Lee was basically a Southern abolitionist, which...

Monday, August 31, 2015

My grandmother, Ruth Johnston Perkins, died in May less than two weeks before the birth of her great-granddaughter. I wrote a remembrance of her this summer titled "A Grandmother's Life, Death, and Resurrection," which has just been published at The Imaginative Conservative.

An excerpt:
Grandma’s courage at the end and the birth of our daughter have both been sources of great comfort to our family. Ultimately, however, they are not enough to defeat death—not nearly enough. The manner of Grandma’s passing reveals the depth of her faith and character, but Grandma’s dignity did not defeat death. Though her legacy lives on in the name and life of our daughter, it does not keep Grandma alive in any way other than a metaphorical sense. As the psalmist grimly and correctly observes: “…even the wise die; / the fool and the stupid alike must perish / and leave their wealth to others. / Their graves are their homes forever, / their dwelling places to all generations, / though they called lands by their own names. / Man in his pomp will not remain; / he is like the beasts that perish.” Nothing Grandma did, and nothing we do, could overcome death. Grandma faced death: Death took her. 
Death’s victories, however, are inevitably Phyrric.
You can read the rest here.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Rule of thumb: avoid insulting that which you have not read

None of us ever fully lives up to our standards of kindness and charity--not always, anyway.*

Last year I wrote a post titled "Polls and Desires." The topic of that piece is rather ancillary here--I was exploring the yawning gap between the conclusions we draw from polls and what polls are actually able to tell us. That reflection was inspired by a highly critical book review published in The American Conservative. In my post, I said some rather unkind things about the book under review--a book I had not read, whose contents I insulted secondhand.

You can imagine my surprise when I came home the other day to find in my inbox an email from Donald Lazere, the author of that book. Professor Lazere's email was unfailingly gracious. He has granted me permission to excerpt it here:
Your analysis of the “unmarked norms” of capitalism and consumerism was right on the mark (or the unmarked) and confirmed that this dimension of political attitudes is almost never directly addressed in either mainstream politics, media or scholarship. In fact, your arguments are much the same as mine throughout the section discussed and the rest of the book, in which I try scrupulously to counter-act the tendentiousness and false dilemmas of most polemics. 
Why, then, did you ridicule and say you didn’t intend to read the book? Weren’t you prejudging it? Why not give it a try?
After receiving his email, I went back and reread my original post. In hindsight, I'm taken aback by the strong language with which I dismissed the book in question--Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias. Of course, I'm unlikely to agree with the premise of a book with that title, and Jonathan Marks' review reinforced that presupposition.

But I had no business dismissing a book I hadn't read in such a cavalier manner. (It's probably a good rule of thumb not to dismiss anything you haven't read or seen, right?)

After I wrote my post on "Polls and Desires," Professor Lazere responded in the American Conservative to Professor Marks' review, which prompted a somewhat combative conversation between the two. In the comments of the response, I noted that, based on the book's table of contents,
I do get the sense that [Lazere's] book may have a wider range and more compelling points than Marks’ review indicated. Dr. Marks may have engaged in some caricaturing of Lazere’s book to make it seem more ridiculous.
At that point I should have amended my original post or written some kind of follow-up pointing to the discussion between Marks and Lazere. I did not do so and instead let my unfair and presumptuous characterization stand. For that I apologize to Professor Lazere.

In any case, it may be worth your time to read the full exchange--Marks' review and then Lazere's response and the ensuing discussion (which carried into the comments section). Should you find yourself interested in Professor Lazere's book but turned off by the price (which is pretty standard for academic publication these days), do know that Palgrave Macmillan will soon be publishing Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias in a (presumably more affordable) paperback edition.

*Some of us, of course, have no such standards in the first place. Those whose standards are scorn, indifference, and cruelty seem to do a better job of actualizing them.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Textbooks Standards and the Limits of Human Knowledge

Catastrophic evil grabs headlines. I tend to think, though, that we're less endangered by the comparatively rare instances of spectacular depravity than by the the toxic and altogether commonplace combination of arrogance and ignorance.

Consequently, what's most exasperating about neo-Confederates and their implicit fellow travelers is their utterly absurd and totally unjustified attitude of learned superiority. They defend a repugnant government. They idolize an evil society. But what I find most annoying--rather than horrifying--is the arrogance with which they proclaim their ignorance. Historically indefensible attempts to minimize the centrality of slavery to the Confederate cause are invariably followed by the pompous demand that their opponents "read some history."

Look, I know history is complex, and that all generalizations in historical study overlook caveats and nuance and exceptions to the rule. But unless we're to do away with generalization altogether--in which case the study of history would not exist, and in its place we'd have archival cataloguing of meaningless and disconnected scraps of information--we have to live with some degree of simplification. As John Lukacs is fond of saying, "Generalizations are like brooms--they're meant to sweep."

So we must generalize at times and in places or give up on historical study. Given this inevitability, we simply have to evaluate which generalizations are more justified and which are less. And if there ever was a defensible, sweepingly true generalization, it's this: the Confederate states seceded and fought a war to defend, extend, and perpetuate an economic and social system defined by--founded and entirely dependent upon--race-based chattel slavery.

The historical evidence is overwhelming--from the declarations of secession to the arguments of southern secession commissioners to the statements of the major political figures of the Confederate States of America to the Confederate Constitution. Meanwhile, alternate theories are indefensible--bad faith distortions largely manufactured by Lost Causers after 1865 as a fig leaf to disguise their slavery-centered revolt. Southern states and the C.S.A. were eager to trample states' rights in defense of slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act, for instance, was arguably the most invasive federal law ever passed. The tariff was lower in the 1850s than in most of the previous decades,* and references to it among secessionists were sporadic and inconsistent. It's true that during the Civil War Abraham Lincoln acted outside of Constitutional bounds, but as the war went on so too did Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government concentrate power at the federal level at the expense of the states.**

It was with great interest, then, that I listened to Diane Rheem's show yesterday on the Texas textbook kerfuffle.*** Obviously I have very little sympathy with those who wish to believe that states' rights was just as central to secession as slavery--much less with those who want nonsensically to treat slavery as a "side issue."

As the panelists discussed the Texas textbook standards--which certainly appear to be frankly ridiculous--a vision of a universalized, national history education emerged from some as the solution to the Texas problem. Early on, Diane Rheem asked, "But wouldn't you think there would be sort of a standardized history text that every child in America would learn the same things about?" Throughout the show, various panelists lamented that this was not the case.

As repugnant as Texas' standards appear to be, I also have to admit that I am deeply uncomfortable with this nationalized vision for historical education. Rheem and her panelists are unconsciously subscribing to the notion that if we just get enough experts together, we can conjure up one single historical account that should suffice to explain everything to everyone.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Judging prophetic claims about history

"Good to be in the right church and on the right side of history."

I read that in all of its intense and righteous self-satisfaction, and I thought of Mrs. Turpin from Flannery O'Connor's "Revelation":
To help anybody out that needed it was her philosophy of life. She never spared herself when she found somebody in need, whether they were white or black, trash or decent. And of all she had to be thankful for, she was most thankful that this was so. If Jesus had said, "You can be high society and have all the money you want and be thin and svelte-like, but you can't be a good woman with it," she would have had to say, "Well don't make me that then. Make me a good woman and it don’t matter what else, how fat or how ugly or how poor!" Her heart rose. He had not made her a nigger or white-trash or ugly! He had made her herself and given her a little of everything. Jesus, thank you! she said. Thank you thank you! Whenever she counted her blessings she felt as buoyant as if she weighed one hundred and twenty five pounds instead of one hundred and eighty.
Mrs. Turpin's fate was to be set upon and, ultimately, set right by the ultimately-not-ironically-named Mary Grace. In absolutely no way do I wish Mary Grace's violence upon the author of those words, but I am always taken aback by the exaggerated sense of rightness in such proclamations.

 A long time ago I thought that claims about right and wrong sides to history were essentially about "a progressive view of history, whereby the superior moral standing of later generations exposes the errors of the past."* I still think that's true, but what stands out to me now is the way that a progressive vision of history functions essentially as an article of faith, entirely and wholly apart from any connection to lived history. I'm interested, in other words, in the religious zealotry that underlies progressive history.

In my last post on "Hope in historical unpredictability," I pointed out that those who make claims about sides to history "aren't making 'historical' claims, in the sense that they can be proven or supported with reference to past history. Whether the proclaimers recognize it or not, such assertions are fundamentally prophetic. That is, they are making a claim about the purposes and intentions of the author of history."

In that post, I more or less implied that statements about the right or wrong side of history should be simply ignored entirely. But that's not particularly charitable, nor am I sure it's prudent.

If, as I suggested, they are not historical claims, then they cannot be investigated and then either confirmed or falsified via the study of history. So, then, how can we evaluate them?

The answer, I humbly suggest, is to evaluate them as what they are: prophetic claims. The speaker of such claims is, essentially, claiming to be a mouthpiece for the author of history. And as I concluded my last post, "the author of history either does not exist or he is God Almighty."

It's worth noting here that prophecy in Scripture is not really about mystically predicting the future. It's about speaking God's truth, which needn't but may sometimes involve proclamations of future judgment. But in either case, the prophet speaks for God.

How, then, would you respond if someone claimed to be speaking on behalf of God?

If you do not buy into prophetic claims in general--perhaps you are an atheist or agnostic or deist or what have you, or perhaps instead you are simply a Christian who thinks prophecy ceased after the New Testament--then you can simply disregard claims about sides to history altogether. You should grant them no more credence or meaning than you assign to your average sign-waving apocalypticist shouting on a street corner.

Things are more complicated if you do not dismiss all prophetic claims out of hand.

In his essay on "Historicism," C.S. Lewis implies that a prophetic claim about history should come "with supporting evidence by way of sanctity and miracles"--and suggests that he is not capable of judging in such an instance. Presumably, Lewis saw that as the job of the Church. That is pretty much what I think--that prophetic claims ought ultimately to be judged by the Church.**

But there are places where the Church has already spoken--where Scripture is resoundingly clear, or where ecumenical councils have made relevant statements, or where the common prayer and practice of the Church make a conclusion unavoidable. And we know, as I've said before, how the story ends.

So, I'd humbly suggest, if someone's claiming that the author of history is saying something in contradiction to what we know to be true about God or what we know to be true about the end of the story, then we can safely reject it as nonsense.


*At the time I noted another possibility: Perhaps the man who was shouting about the wrong side of history wasn't really a believer in History as Progress. "Perhaps," I wrote, "he fancies himself a hardened realist. He's merely stating that victors get first dibs at writing history textbooks, and he intends to win. He intends, in other words, to sit in the chair, become the power that be is? and say what's what." He's saying, in other words,  that you'll be on the wrong side of history because I'm going to make sure you lose, and then I'll write the history of your defeat. I wrote that with my tongue firmly planted in cheek, but now I'm not so sure that's an implausible reading. In fact I think it's likely that faith in History as Progress goes hand-in-hand with the desire to demonize, defeat, and annihilate the Enemies of Progress.
**In response to this post, Daniel Silliman has rightly pointed out that the two options I've outlined do not fairly cover the possible responses to prophetic claims. He's absolutely correct, and I did not mean to suggest that wholesale dismissal and "the church should judge" are the only possible responses. Many evangelicals, for example, might respond that each individual should judge by Scripture and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I merely want to say that claims about the sides of history should be weighed in the same manner as you would judge religious claims--however you do so. My primary targets--to drop the whole indirect pretense real quick--are those who think religious claims are fine as privately held beliefs but have no place in the public square, yet also bludgeon their political opponents with "wrong side of history" language.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Hope in historical unpredictability

The fellas over at First Things--along with their allies and fellow travelers (and, uh, frenemies) are quite a gloomy lot these days. There's a distinct sense that orthodox Christianity is doomed in American society. Many in this cohort have shifted their attention from strategies of engagement in the public square to how best to deal with impending exile from mainstream American life. The so-called "Benedict Option," articulated most popularly by Rod Dreher, has been gaining traction. Michael Hanby's profoundly despairing essay on "The Civic Project of American Christianity" was widely and heatedly discussed.

It is in this context, then, that I find Michael Brendan Dougherty's most recent column at The Week rather refreshing. Dougherty essentially says two things.

He points out how many seemingly unstoppable trends in the past half century or so were reversed or undone in ways no one predicted:
But history has surprising turns, ones that can be hard to see even in retrospect. It is possible to imagine a future in which 2015 doesn't augur the beginning of conservatism's final descent, but instead represents a temporary nadir. 
...Many Cold War conservatives were convinced that communism would triumph over the West. Conservatives of the late 1980s and '90s thought that the increasing crassness of popular culture and the rise in crime were related and unstoppable. Entirely wrong, all.
Dougherty then highlights many societal trends that, while apparently secular and anti- or post-Christian in nature, have surprising resonance with the concerns of conservative Christians. He points to feminism's relatively recent turn away from unfettered sexual libertinism and towards a genuine concern over the destructiveness and danger of casual sex. He notes that "the desire for organic, natural, and sustainable products" should be very amenable to true conservatism--which should be about conserving, after all. He highlights the ways that union organizers resists statism and New Urbanism emphasizes humane scale and beauty. In short, not all is bleak.

A decade ago, historian John Lukacs saw these surprising convergences. "A great division among the American people," Lukacs wrote, "has begun--gradually, slowly--to take shape: not between Republicans and Democrats, and not between 'conservatives' and 'liberals,' but between people who are still unthinking believers in technology and economic determinism and people who are not." Later in the same book, he quoted Wendell Berry's similar thoughts. "It is easy for me to imagine," said Berry, "that the next great division will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines."

Ultimately, though, the particular hopeful trends Dougherty mentions are less important than his other, more basic concept. History is unpredictable. Trends that seem unstoppable stop. New trends emerge from totally unexpected places.

Some years ago I wrote some thoughts about Tina Fey, Mark Twain, and racism:
Consider: if we today have problems discerning whether 30 Rock is racist, imagine how much more difficult this would be in a century. When people with inevitably different perspectives from another culture with its own constructions of race and society attempts to parse commentary, humor, and racism within 30 Rock, some of them are likely to think, wrongly, "Wow, that is actually pretty racist." And if, in one hundred years, that discussion actually is occurring, Tina Fey's work and legacy will have approached Mark Twain's. 
I later connected that thought with a broader point about the unpredictable judgments of our progeny--the frightening reality that what we see as our best, most "forward-thinking" qualities might come in for vociferous condemnation somewhere down the line:
At the end of last year I wrote that Tina Fey's not-controversial-except-to-neocon-pundits joke about Mark Twain might actually be a brilliant anticipation of the totally unfair ways we'll be judged by our descendants. And it's that unpredictability--turning a prescient, humane condemnation of racism into racism itself--that makes me think worrying too much about our grandchildren's judgment is a waste of time. They'll probably have bad taste.
More to the point today: we surely needn't worry about those proclaiming right and wrong sides to history. After all, they aren't making "historical" claims, in the sense that they can be proven or supported with reference to past history. Whether the proclaimers recognize it or not, such assertions are fundamentally prophetic. That is, they are making a claim about the purposes and intentions of the author of history.

And the author of history either does not exist or he is God Almighty.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Redeeming the Oppressor

I'm praying that the church massacre in Charleston will do for some what the Birmingham church bombing did for Dennis Covington's father:
Dad had no use for the Klan. He was a gentle, principled man. But he must have sensed even then that the past he seemed bent on avoiding was bound to be claimed by someone, somewhere along the line. He was, as I've said, in theory if not in practice, a segregationist. Some of his arguments seem tamer now in retrospect, tempered as they are by time. But he was still a segregationist, in an era when legal segregation was our greatest shame. The bombing on the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963 broke my father's resistance, and his heart. The girls who died in the bombing were about my age. We hear the news on a small brown radio in the kitchen after church that Sunday. It was the first time I ever saw my father cry. The bombing seemed to seal a permanent judgment on the city. 'The shame will be ours forever,' editorialized a local newspaper at the time. But Martin Luther King, Jr., foresaw ultimate salvation in the tragedy. At the funeral for three of the girls, he said, 'The deaths may well serve as the redemptive force that brings light to this dark city.' And it did. What happened in Birmingham in 1963 not only redeemed the oppressed. It also redeemed my people, although we haven't been able to accept that yet. We haven't yet taken that particular snake out and lifted it aloft in the light--the dangerous, unloved thing about us: where came from, what we did, who we are. (from Salvation on Sand Mountain)
Oppression, as Covington (and King) observed, harms the oppressor as well as the oppressed--though of course in very different ways, and the oppressor is unlikely to recognize how participation in evil brings destruction to one's own soul.

Explicit white supremacists may be few and far between today, but there are still many among us who reflexively label young black people as thugs, who ignorantly cast all problems of inner-city poverty as personal failures of moral weakness and in so doing whitewash hundreds of years of institutional racism (along with well-intentioned but effectively disastrous programs instituted as recompense in the 1960s and '70s)--and who defend an antebellum society built on the sweat and blood of the enslaved and a government founded explicitly to defend, perpetuate, and extend race-based slavery.

Let Dylann Roof's evil be turned into some good for those of us who have yet to face where we came from, what we did, who we are.