non-fiction Archives

May 24, 2006

Brock - Conscience of a Conservative

David Brock
Conscience of a Conservative

I have fallen behind on my log entries, so I am going to put in a batch of stubs.

I read it, I liked it.

Brock explains how he got sucked into the right-wing anti-Clinton movement of the 1990s. He then apologizes for his actions, and points out some dangers for the future once this gang of self-indulgent moralists and fulminating haters got control of the government.

I liked it.

I was amused to read a gay Republican writing a conversion narrative about his recovery from right-wing politics. Jonathan Edwards' literary form has traveled a strange path to get to this book.

Good stuff.

Posted by Red Ted at 11:22 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 29, 2006

Traxel - 1898

1898
David Traxel
Alfred A. Kopf, New York, 1998

This is about as good as popular history gets, which is pretty darn good indeed.

Traxel takes a single, important year and tells its story chronologically. He is more interested in telling a story than in engaging other historians. He does cite other people in the text from time to time - he is no David McCullogh that way - but his primary purpose is synthesis and narrative. The narrative that he tells is one of a nation becoming modern, a coming of age story for a large, complex body of people.

The cover does an absolutely brilliant job of depicting the way that the events inside have been framed. The front cover is the famous picture of Cuba reconciling the North and the South, a staged picture with two old men in Civil War uniforms shaking hands under the blessing of a girl in a white dress wearing a tiara marked "Cuba." The back is the National Biscuit Company's iconic advertisement of a boy in a yellow slicker holding an equally waterproof box of Uneeda Biscuits. Empire, reunification, and the second industrial revolution all combined in a single powerful year.

Traxel puts most of his attention on the United States' emergence as an imperial power, first with the Spanish American War and then with the decision to annex the Philippines after that war. The second large story that he tells is of the rise of Theodore Roosevelt from hyper-energetic assistant secretary of the navy to war hero to Governor of New York and future vice president. Both of these stories are told against the backdrop of the second industrial revolution - we see violent labor strikes, crippling industrial accidents, and the emergence of the National Biscuit Company and its antidote to the old-fashioned cracker barrel. The final part of the story is that of race in the United States, for 1898 saw both the Wilmington NC race riot and the charge of the 9th and 10th Cavalry up San Juan Hill. The Progressive Era marked the nadir of race relations in the modern United States, and 1898 is after Plessy v. Ferguson but before Woodrow Wilson would segregate the federal government.

The prose is simple and powerful, the events compelling the coverage complete. Traxel accommodates his tight chronological focus by letting his story break free of the 1898 at the point where he introduces and says farewell to each character. So when we meet Teddy Roosevelt we get his backstory, we then follow Roosevelt through a chronological narrative of the year, and it is only after his last moment on the stage that Traxel tells us the trajectory of Roosevelt's later political career. He follows the same pattern for other people, other institutions, and the net effect emphasizes his contention that 1898 was the crucial year that the universe changed.

There are a few places where the narrative falters - we learn about the murder of President McKinley's brother in law in the month when McKinley found out about it, and we learn how that murder altered his campaign plans during the mid-term Congressional elections, but after that we never go back to the small town in Ohio. Events appear and disappear from the narrative, just as they would have from the perspective of someone who lived through the year, but many of the threads feel unwoven and unresolved. That may have been intentional - we don't learn the answers to many stories - but it leads to a few jarring transitions. In addition, it emphasizes the extent to which this is popular and not analytical history. Traxel tells us what happens, and he tells us what happened next, but he does not spend a lot of foreground time and energy explaining why most of the events he chronicles actually matter. The reader is left to speculate about the importance of a storm off the coast of New England, because that storm does not really connect to either the growth of big business or the expansion of empire. Still, it happened and so we are told about it.

Those are quibbles. This was a great book great fun to read, and heartily recommended!

Posted by Red Ted at 09:51 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 20, 2006

Berkin - Revolutionary Mothers

Carol Berkin
Revolutionary Mothers: women in the struggle for America's independence
New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 2005.

This is a nice light and readable book about the experiences of women during the American Revolution. Berkin has several intentions here, including pointing out that the American Revolution was not a mere matter of a couple of bloody noses but was instead very much a destructive war, especially along the Canadian border and in the South.

She tells her story through anecdote piled on anecdote, all of them compelling, some detailed and others a simple harrowing paragraph - like the woman who fled British foragers only to watch her infant daughter die in her arms from exposure as they hid in the woods.

Berkin takes care to mention both patriot and loyalist, white, black and indian women, to tell stories of heroism and deprivation together, and especially, to focus on the marked class difference between the camp followers who did the armys' laundry and the officers wives who provided moments of gentility and refinement during winter camp.

This is a great book for undergraduate or even for high school students. I know that I found a heck of a lot of great details that I will work into my classes in the future. Berkin hides her scholarship - no notes, no visible impedimentia of theory or structure other than an introduction that explains why she chose to arrange her chapters as she did. This makes it a very accessible book for the students, and we professional types can always go digging until we find the footnotes.

Good stuff!

Posted by Red Ted at 08:38 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 07, 2006

Fehrenbacher - The Dred Scott Case

Don Fehrenbacher
The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics
New York, Oxford University Press, 1978

I think I have been reading this book for a year.

And that is a compliment. The book was both interesting enough to keep me from chucking it into the "did not finish" bin and long enough that it took a mighty lot of reading to get through it. (I also put it aside several times to read other more pressing books.)

Fehrenbacher does a wonderful job of digging deeply into a single complex historical moment, explaining the events, the actors, and the consequences of their actions. It is a book about a court case, and mostly about the meaning that people assigned to the court case. Fehrenbacher suggests that the real impact of the case came not when it was decided but about 18 months later. Southern Democrats who had other reasons for disliking and distrusting Stephen Douglas used the case to attack him for his actions during the Lecompton controversy, while Republicans both claimed that the case was full of inadmissable dicta and argued that the case was yet another crucial step in the slave power conspiracy intended to use the federal government to make slavery legal across the nation regardless of the wishes of local inhabitants.

The book is older, but still holds together well. Good stuff, and I got at least 20 minutes of class time out of it.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:13 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 09, 2004

Trenchard and Gordon: Cato's Letters

Cato's Letters: or Essays on Liberty, Civil and religious, and other Important Subjects
John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon
Ronald Hamowy, ed.
Four volumes in two
Indianapolis, Liberty Fund, 1995
Originally appeard 1720-1723 in the London Journal

The Liberty Fund is really really good at taking classics of Anglo-American political thought, getting a talented but not high-priced academic to edit them, and publishing them in a durable affordable paperback edition. I disagree with their politics, but I love their books.

Cato's Letters is a classic of eighteenth-century political thought. In fact, while some educated men read Locke and friends in the originals, most American colonists got their ideas of compact theory, religious toleration, and the need for a vigilant defence of liberty, from Trenchard and Gordon. They were the vessel through which Whigh politics and enlightenment political theory were transmitted to much of the colonies, and they were also a well-regarded model of style and power.

I read these back in October, but never got around to blogging them. The letters are all short essays, the first dozen or so inspired by the scandal of the South Seas Company, the last few rather odd little rants, but most of them short essays on political theory or political concerns. All are worried about the corrupting aspects of power, and all warn that wealth and privilege lead a governing class to act for their own interest and not the national interest. As such, it was enlightening to read them during the tail end of the recent Presidential election, for I kept finding bits and pieces that I wanted to cut and paste and send off to the newspaper as op-ed pieces against Bush and Cheyney.

The irony, of course, is that those same bits and pieces could easily have been sent in by Republicans as op-ed pieces during Bill Clinton's two terms.

I won't get into the details of the letters - there are a lot of them - but I will say that I like them. I should add that my students do not like them. I assigned Cato 42, on the difference between natural law and statute law, and I think it was one of the readings with the lowest completion rate of the entire syllabus. Trenchard and Gordon like nice fat multi-clause 18th-century sentences, and our reading habits to day are closer to "See Jane run."

Good stuff.

Posted by Red Ted at 03:32 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 09, 2004

Warren - The Two-Income Trap

Elizabeth Warren, Amelia Warren Tyagi.
The two-income trap : why middle-class mothers and fathers are going broke
New York : Basic Books, c2003

I skimmed this more than reading it, but it was enough to get the gist of it.

Warren is making a public policy argument based on the structural difficulties that she sees the middle class (defined by achievement, not wealth or income) facing.

As she points out, the best statistical indicator that a woman will file bankruptcy is that she has kids - about one in seven. Why? She argues that middle class families have been stuck trying to reproduce their class status for their children. They do this by looking for good schools, and in the U.S. schools are tied to location. As a result, middle class families bid up the price of housing in neighborhoods with good schools. And, over the last 20 years or so, more women have gone into the workforce and their paychecks, by and large, have gone not for savings, not for extra consumption, not for quality of life, not for building a safety net, but for raising the stakes in the educational bidding war.

How to get out of this trap? She suggests that public school vouchers, basically unbundling school attendance from residency, would make it impossible for families to get into bidding wars for houses in good districts.

I am not so sure. I know that on the collegiate level, when there was a strong demand for good colleges, colleges responded by going upscale. Duke used to be a nothing, now it is a very good school, largely because people demanded better schools. The same pattern continues all over the place - look at Temple University in Philadelphia, or Washington University in St. Louis, or the University of Cincinatti, all of which are engaged in a systematic attempt to upgrade their academics in order to appeal to students (and their families) who want a better education.

Will we see something similar on a local level? I know that we bought a house in a town with pretty good schools. They were not the best, we could not afford the best, but they were good schools with a tradition of college prep. The next town over has elementary schools that are about as good, but the high school only sends about half its students to college. If we had joined in the upscaling of the next town, and stayed there 16 years, then we would almost certainly have been sending our kids to a high school that DID send its graduates to college. Parental pressure leads to better schools. Parents bidding up home prices makes property taxes yield more, and that leads to better-funded schools (an aside, the biggest difference between Philadelphia's terrible schools and its suburbs wonderful schools is that the suburbs spend about twice as much per student as the city does - money does matter.)

However, Warren's piece does get me thinking about the nature of the housing bubble, especially when compared to those cartograms that have been floating around after the election. A LOT of people live on the coasts. Property values are going up along the coasts. The coasts tend to have better educated populations - Texas v. Massachusetts is a telling comparison - and by implication have parents who are trying to get their kids into better schools.

I wonder to what extent the housing bubble in the coastal markets is linked to the tradition of good public education in the coastal states, while the lack of a bubble in the South is linked to the post-Brown post-school prayer decision by the bulk of the Southern middle class to move their kids to private Christian schools.

I suspect that the data won't back that assumption, that the Southern tendency to underfund education was strong before Brown and the school prayer cases and remains strong today - Alabama recently voted to chase Mexico to the bottom - but Warren does get me thinking about the interlinked consequences of housing and education.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:49 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 22, 2004

Loewen - Lies my Teacher Told Me

James W. Loewen
Lies My Teacher Told Me: [everything your American history textbook got wrong] Audiobook.
Prince Frederick, MD : Recorded Books, p2002.
Narrated by Brian Keeler
Orig Pub: New York : New Press, 1994.

This is an important book.

It is also a preachy book.

Loewen makes some powerful arguments about the problems with history textbooks - they tell feel-good stories for affluent white boys while marginalizing and distorting the histories of non-white, poor people, and women. They tell all their readers that everyone can succeed, and never recount the history of the procedures and systems that made it almost impossible for anyone but affluent white men to do well until very recently, and whose impact continues today. He charges his textbooks with making everyone into a hero, telling happy stories about them instead of digging into what they actually did. So, to use his opening examples, the texts tell us that Helen Keller learned to read, write, and speak. They never tell us that she grew up to be a leading socialist. The texts tell us happy stories about Christopher Columbus, they never discuss his second voyage where he conquered Haiti and began a process of forced labor, expropriation, exile into slavery, random murder, and disease that together killed some 4,000,000 Arawak indians within 40-odd years of his arrival.

It is a powerful book - one strong enough that I seriously considered shifting to teaching high school so that I could tackle some of these problems at the source rather than trying to fix them in college students. If I don't find a full time teaching job, that is probably what I will do, because I do love to teach.

Reading this started me thinking about Louie Simmons, the powerlifting guru, and Lynne Cheney, the conservative critic of history education and former head of the NEH (also Mrs. Vice President at the moment.) I want to say something about an odd contrast between the two, but the thought is not even formed up enough to blog about. So, it will go onto the main blog in a couple of days.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:56 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 17, 2004

Davis - Hammer of the Gods

Stephen Davis
Hammer of the Gods
New York : Boulevard Books, 1997.

As long as I was on a Led Zep kick, I decided to read Stephen Davis's biography of the band.

Davis tells two, perhaps three intertwined stories.

The first is the tale of two music industry professionals (Page and Jones) who got together with two talented kids from Northern England (Plant and Bonham) to play hard blues. The band then evolved to include Crowleyite mysticism, English traditional music, psychedelic drones, and a LOT of noise. Along the way they retained a structure of hard rock music with extensive dynamic shifts, tempo changes, and thick overlaid textures within a dense pudding of guitar, bass, and drums.

The second is the tale of excess. What happens if you take four young men, couple them with a crew of people devoted to keeping them happy and productive, send them out on the road for months on end, get them drunk, and tell them that no matter what they want to do, they can do it. Almost unlimited money and a crew of people devoted to protecting you from the consequences of your actions is a heady brew at any age, especially for a 20-something rocker with a fondness for alcohol and drugs. Aleister Crowley wrote "do what thou wilt, is the whole of the law" - without the modern Wiccan provision "an it harm none" - and the boys followed Crowley's advice.

This sort of release was liberating for many. One of the most telling anecdotes in Davis' long book of anecdotes was one morning as the band was checking out of their hotel. As usual, they and their roadies and groupies had trashed the place the night before, taking especial pleasure in flinging large TV sets off the 10th-floor balcony to watch them shatter in the parking long below. As the band manager was digging into his bag of cash - the band travelled with thousands in cash just to pay their bills - the hotel manager commented that he had himself often been tempted to chuck a TV off the balcony. The band manager grinned, peeled off another $500 bill, and said "'ere, 'ave one on us." The hotel manager thanked him and went upstairs. A few minutes later there was a huge crash from the parking lot and broken glass once again bounced off the cars and tour busses. The manager came down with a great big grin on his face and thanked the band for the pleasure they had just given him.

Davis organizes a lot of his narrative around the Jeckyl and Hyde nature of the band, using John Bonham as his metaphor for the entire crew of musicians, managers, and roadies. Bonham was a fairly gentle young man, kind and generous. But only while sober. Once he got drunk he turned into a sort of hair-trigger trap. He got more effusive and more generous until something - anything - went wrong, at which point he turned into a raving, screaming, cursing lunatic, raging around breaking anything and anyone that came to hand. They called this aspect of his personality The Beast. The odd thing was that not only did the Beast only come out when Bonham was drunk, he mostly only drank when on tour or when hanging around with other musicians. At home he was reasonable enough that by the late 1970s his neighbors approached him about serving as local Justice of the Peace - he declined. Musicians who destroy themselves and their talent through excess and debauchery are a cliche - no episode of VH1's various musical biographies would be complete without a segment on hard times and self destruction - but Davis reminds us that just as Led Zeppelin took the music that everyone else was playing and played it harder, faster, and with more dynamic changes, so too did they take their excess to striking and unusual levels.

It is a sad story in many ways. It is sad to read of someone who will walk into a bar, order 20 black russians, pound 10 of them, then turn around and try to pick a fight. It is sad to read of a perfectionist geek who gets caught first in cocaine and then in heroin. Finally, it is sad to read about the post Zep careers of Plant and Page. Davis argues that of the four, Jones was the only survivor. And he survived because, in large part, he steered clear of the flying circus that formed the rest of the band, often travelling alone, living elsewhere, and only appearing for showtime.

After the band formally broke up, Page and Plant sometimes got together for benefits or other performances. On some of these occasions, Jones was invited and joined them. At least once Jason Bonham, Bonzo's son who had jammed with the band as a teenager, sat in on drums. Davis points out that Page and Plant together produced a sound that was thin and forced, a parody of their earlier collaberation. When Jones sat in, they sounded like Led Zeppelin again. But, just as Jones had snubbed the rest of the band during their party frenzy, Plant and Page snubbed Jones after the band broke up, and so they all went their separate ways, none of them as creative or effective as they had been as a coherent unit.

I think I need to chase down some of Jason Bonham's music.

There is a lot of prurient material in the book. There are a lot of sad stories in the book. There are some wonderful anecdotes about the origins and evolution of the music. I am glad I read it. As I write this brief commentary, I have Led Zep's first 8 albums running in an iTunes party shuffle.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:31 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 15, 2004

Andrea Tone - Devices & Desires

Andrea Tone
Devices & Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America
New York: Hill & Wang, 2001

This book got a lot of press last year when the New York Museum of Sex opened. I finally got around to reading it last weekend.

Tone's subtitle is misleading: this is a book about contraception in the United States from 1873 to the 1990s. She opens her tale with the Comstock Act of 1873 which made it a federal crime to transmit birth control information through the U.S. Mails, and continues the tale from the subsequent period of illegal and semi-legal birth control through the invention of The Pill and the subsequent failed search for better alternatives to the pill.

She is strongest on the early parts of the book, telling of Comstock and people like Julius Schmidt, the crippled German immigrant who figured out how to adopt sausage-making machinery to condom production, and in her final chapter where she looks at the search for a better alternative to the pill, the consequences of the medicalization of birth control in the United States, and the lingering misogyny in reproductive management. Elsewhere, her writing suffers from several of the same faults I find in my own work: paragraphs that trail off into nowhere, a narrative that gets sidetracked and distracted, and a tendency to get so caught up in describing the "what" that she forgets to keep a focus on the "so what." In short, it is an adequately-written book about an important subject in which she introduces a lot of new material and convincingly describes the shift from a commercial to a medical model of birth control.

I should say more, but I have class prep and this is a blog not a formal book review. Good book, glad I read it, others should read it.

Posted by Red Ted at 01:16 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 23, 2004

Massie - Castles of Steel

Robert K. Massie
Castles of steel : Britain, Germany, and the winning of the Great War at sea
New York : Random House, c2003.
ISBN 0679456716

Robert Massie is a wonderful biographer. His Nicholas and Alexandra argued persuasively that the collapse of the Russian Empire came because of the personalities, passions, and love between Tsar and Tsarina, compounded by their only son's hemophilia. His Peter the Great went back a few centuries and explored the life and impact of the man who dragged Russia kicking and screaming from the middle ages into the early modern era, although it ignores the shallow and military nature of Peter's reforms. Both are wonderful reads and both make a good case.

His later books have been less persuasive, largely because he has moved back to the twentieth century, continued to focus on the lives and personalities of national leaders, but has not integrated these lives and personalities into the larger trends of the day. His Dreadnaught is a wonderful set of portraits of Wilhelm II and the British royal family; it explores the Anglo-German naval race and the tensions that led to war; it fails to explain why the war happened and why it was fought as it was. The book informs without making a convincing argument, and so while it is wonderful fun to read it leaves the reader a little cranky. "Is this all?"

That lengthy introduction was necessary because Castles of Steel is the sequal to Dreadnaught and it shares many of the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessor.

Massie's title suggests that it is a history of the Great War at Sea. But really, the bulk of the narrative and the bulk of the evidence is British; most of the rest is German; the Turks make a short cameo for the Dardanelles and Gallipoli. The narrative focuses on a few individuals who had the power to make crucial decisions. Admiral Jellico of the British Navy, commander of the Grand Fleet up at Scapa Flow, was the only man who really could lose the war in an afternoon. As a result he was cautious and capable. David Beatty, who had been a hard-charging admiral when he commanded the battle cruiser squadron, similarly got cautious when promoted to that spot. Similarly, Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted to preserve his fleet. As a result, the great steel castles came out but rarely, fighting one major and a couple of minor clashes.

Massie's focus on these individuals means that the book is a study in top-level command and control in the early days of wireless. From that perspective, I found it fascinating that Massie condems Winston Churchill because of his inability to maintain a proper tempo of orders. He comes down even harder on David Beatty, who let the same flag officer garble crucial commands on THREE different occasions, and who himself had only a tenuous grasp on communications and coordination. Beatty, in many ways, was a throwback to the 17th-century admirals who simply hoisted "follow me" and steered for the heart of the enemy fleet.

Like Dreadnaught I finished the book having learned lots of little things and having had as enjoyable a read as one can have in a military history of the Great War -- Massie's description of the sinking of the Lusitania was meant to disconcert the reader, to help them conjure up the emotions that British and Americans felt when they read the gory details, and it worked. One of his little vignettes still bothers me. I will paraphrase it in the extended entry in the hopes that writing it out will exorcize it from my system.

And yet, I finished the book very pleased with Massie's description of the elephant's left foreleg and very cranky that while he had explained the leg's position with respect to the hindlegs (the Western Front) or even the right foreleg (the importance of Turkish involvement) he never did connect it to the body of the beast; domestic opinion appears only in the form of official German complaints about the privations and slow starvation created by the British blockade; sailors' lives appear only briefly in a discussion of Scapa Flow and Jellico's popularity among the men; civilians appear briefly in the newspapers and vanish; even the cabinet and Prime Minister and the German Chancellor appear in an administrative vacuum. This is an old and a common complaint about Massie, but it still applies.

Finally, Massie returns to one of his themes from Nicholas and Alexandra, contingent moments in the Great War. If the Russians had not plunged forward into Prussia in 1914, the Schleifflen plan might have worked although poor German command and control did more to slow their advance than did the missing troops diverted to fight the Russians. Massie, however, points out that most of Russia's pre-war trade went through Odessa and the Black Sea. If Turkey had remained neutral, then guns, supplies and advisors could have come from the Western Allies to the Tsar's under-equipped, poorly trained, but very brave army. Morale would have been stronger; Russia would not have suffered such terrible losses; the Russian economy would not have collapsed as badly; the Tsar might not have fallen.

And, Turkey entered the war because the German battle cruiser Goeben made it from the Western Mediterranean to Istanbul. The Goeben made it because Winston Churchill completely garbled his orders to the admirals on the spot -- he had wireless and thought this meant that he had tactical control, but all he did was issue three or four sets of mutual contradictory commands and muddle everything.

That is why I have such trouble reading the Great War, and why I can not let it go either. It is painful to read, a tale of mistakes and blood and death. And yet, those mistakes created the 20th century as we know it.

The Lusitania was a large, fast passenger liner. It and its two companion ships had been subsidized by the British government on the condition that they be built with mountings for deck guns and with a very high speed. Every nation had plans to take passenger liners into service as naval auxiliaries and use them as commerce raiders for they were far faster than most freighters, and the Lusitania and her sisters were intended to run down other armed liners just like battlecruisers were intended to run down and sink armored cruisers. The other two ships were armed and taken into service, the Lusitania was left to carry passengers and urgent war materials across the Atlantic.

She was sunk just off the coast of Ireland while carrying a lot of passengers, a full crew, and a cargo that included military explosives. The U-Boat who sank her correctly identified the ship but concluded that she was an armed liner serving as a troop transport, a legitimate military target.

After the torpedo struck, the crew responded without much worry for the ship had more than enough lifeboats. Alas, the ship listed so quickly that the boats could not be launched and almost everyone went into the bitterly cold sea.

During the early phase, the stewards in the nursery had tied the wicker infant baskets into life jackets for extra safety. After the ship went down, one of the surviving crew members recalled hearing the cries of the children as they floated nearby, alone in their baskets on the tossing sea. It was all he could do to remain afloat himself, and so he had to listen as the cries died down one by one as the baskets filled and sank. All 37 infants drowned, as did about a thousand adults.

The image of Moses baskets sinking in the Atlantic bothers me. Massie meant it to. The people who wrote the stories up for the contemporary newspapers meant it to. And that was one of the big factors convincing Woodrow Wilson that Germany was evil and that he should mount a moral crusade against war and especially against Germany. The 14 points and the bizarre failures of Versailles stem in part from a ship designed as an armed cruiser but not designed to preserve its crew after battle damage.

Posted by Red Ted at 07:30 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Baker - James Buchanan

Jean Baker
James Buchanan
New York : Times Books, 2004.

This is another in the Presidents series.

Baker is a remarkably good historian, working primarily in the political culture of Jacksonian America. Her book Affairs of Party is most remarkably good, and she draws on her experience in Jacksonian politics for this biography of the man widely regarded as our worst President ever.

Baker tries hard to be sympathetic to Buchanan, and he did have some pretty good diplomatic skills and he was a pretty solid party hack. He pulled where directed, worked the patronage machine, and did what he could to serve the nation as he saw best.

As Baker presents his Presidency, the focus of the book, his problems were twofold. Firstly, Buchanan was a throrough-going doughface. From Pennsylvania, he consistently voted and executed policies that favored the South. This pattern appeared throughout his Congressional and diplomatic careers -- he constantly worked to annex Cuba, for example -- and he continued this pattern as President. Thus not only did he systematically take the strongest possible pro-slavery position in disputes about slavery in the territories, supporting the manifestly anti-democratic and anti-republican pro-slavery constitution in Kansas, but once secession was underway he aided rather than impeded its progress. He pulled federal troops out of the South, he had earlier tried to move federal armories into the South so that they might be more readily seized by secessionists, and in many ways acted like the President of the Confederacy and not of the Union. Buchanan is a bad president, fundamentally, because he abetted the dissolution of the Union he had sworn to protect.

Buchanan was also a fairly incompetant President. Baker traces that incompetance to his personality and his cabinet. The man was not a lifetime loser - despite being stiff, formal, and a bit boring he had been an effective diplomat and an adequate Congressman. But, he was lonely. Buchanan never married. He only had one long-term emotional relationship, a lifelong friendship with Rufus King of South Carolina. And, after King died, Buchanan had no one to talk to, no one to bounce ideas off of, no one he could trust to tell him the truth. He filled this emotional void with his cabinet. Not only did he meet with them daily, but he dined with them, invited them to sleep over at the White House, and otherwise turned them into a ersatz family. They were a failed family, for his cabinet turned out to be composed of yes men, and their close living relationship made it very difficult for his advisors to tell him hard truths. The combination meant that Buchanan served his term in an echo chamber, and it echoed bad decisions.

Baker writes well and smoothly. It is a truism that we learn more from failure than from success. And yet, it is always painful to read about failure. For a clear, well written, short (150-odd page) book, this was a very hard read.

Posted by Red Ted at 07:19 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 16, 2004

Wills - Under God

Garry Wills
Under God : religion and American politics
New York : Simon and Schuster, c1990.

I read this very quickly.

I got it because I had a brain fart and confused Robert Bellah, who wrote about civil religion in the 1950s, with Gary Wills, the journalist and political commentator.

This is a perfectly reasonable review of religion in the 1980s Presidential elections, of Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson's different ways of deploying religiosity, and of the way that religious rhetoric continues to permeat the American discourse despite the formal separation of church and state.

He includes a brief review of the founding and the early republic, including a good look at Lincoln's use of God talk. I might do something with his section on Lincoln, the rest is not so useful.

I disagree with him on civil religion and the American religious settlement. Details of that disagreement will wait until I finish, if only because I am still thinking over my position.

So, I gutted this for work, but a book is a book.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:38 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Critser - Fat Land

Greg Critser
Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World
Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2003

This is a powerful polemic about a serious public health crisis in the United States. But, because that public health crisis is a crisis of personal health, one that must be addressed both by national policy and by millions of individual, private, decisions, I found that I read the book with a split personality. On the one hand, I read it with an eye to public health and public policy, the class components of morbid obesity and food health, and the role of voters, school boards, and elected officials in fighting this battle. On the other hand, I read it as a dad, checking our food policies and thinking about whether we are doing the right thing with our fat baby and chubby toddler.

Critser's book is a polemic. By that I mean that almost every separate piece of his evidence comes with a "yes, but." He points out that womens' clothing sizes have gone up, so that 16 is now a medium. But, he forgets to mention that women are also taller than they were in 1942 when the standard sizes were invented. We are fatter, but we are also taller. Fatter is more important, but the change in clothing sizes reflects two trends, not one.

Much of life fits the old patternn of "two steps forward, one step back." Much of Critser's evidence is a presentation of the two steps forward. He does not mention the one step back. And, while this does not affect the overall point he is making, I am always bothered by people who write critically while ignoring contrary evidence.

That said, Critser does make a strong anecdotal and statistical argument that there is a substantial confluence between several trends, and that most of these trends reinforce one another in a positive feedback loop. Fat and hfcs are cheap, and food is a lot cheaper than it was during the 1970s. Fast food restaurants have dramatically increased portion sizes as a way to increase profit margins. Americans watch more TV. Americans exercise less. American child-rearing manuals during the 1980s emphasized child-directed food habits rather than adult-directed food discipline. Americans feel that their streets and neighborhoods are dangerous, a true feeling for people in the inner cities because of the violence that follows drugs and gangs. Schools have cut PE. Exercise has become a class-based leisure activity, especially for children. National health and fitness recommendations have gotten less challenging, more supportive. People have used tiny and class-biased data sets to argue that fitness and fatness are irrelevant to one another. Americans feel busier. Americans eat more food away from home. Food away from home is far more calory-dense than food prepared at home.

He makes a compelling case for a multiple-causation feedback loop creating a public health crisis, especially among poor people. He gives terrifying anecdotal evidence about the spread of type II diabetes among children, about the effects of morbid obesity on growing children, and about the long term health crisis we have brewing. He does not use these words, but his message is that we are become a nation of Dudley Dursley's: overindulged, overweight, over our heads.

What to do?

On a policy level, Critser implies that a change in agricultural policy to cut back on the subsidies for HFCS, Palm Oil, and Soybean oil would raise food prices (a bad thing) but also create profit signals that would encourage food processors to reformulate their products. He would like to see a return to meaningful physical fitness tests for children, a return to physical education in the schools, fast food and soft drinks banned from the schools, and a systematic public health education and intervention program aimed at changing behaviors. If not, we will all pay for it as we pay for our neighbors' health coverage.

What about on a personal level?

Here we get into the dilemma between cruelty and compassion. On an individual basis, it is a good thing to be kind to others. One of the core principles of the enlightenment was the attempt to reduce or remove pain from life, and that is a good goal. So we are tempted to try to help an overweight friend or neighbor, we are told not to mock people for their physical appearance, just as we tend to go out of our way to encourage, say, a teen mom who completes her education. And yet, every time we engage in that individual act of kindness, we are also lowering the social stigma against obesity, or teen motherhood, or other individual acts that have social consequences. How to be critical without being mean is a hard balancing act, and the current tendency is to bend over backwards to avoid appearing mean.

Finally, public health begins at home. It is created by a combination of policy, laws, and institutions with myriad individual choices and decisions. Policy, in the end, is there to make it easier for individuals to help themselves.

Both J and I are heavy for our height, slim for our weight. I have a BMI of about 27 but an 8 to 10 inch drop from chest to waist. Despite the love handles, I am slim for my age.

The toddler is a little heavy - he is a good eater. We already encourage him to be active - I walk and run and he comes to. "Runnah, runnah!" I need to remember to keep the serving pot on the stove and give much more reasonable portions to him. I can say "eat till you're done, then stop." But I have noticed that he is a social eater, and will continue to eat as long as his little brother or his parents are sitting at table. So, portion control. We are already eating low fat because of my diet. We are currently able to maintain family dinner time and hope to keep that sit-down dinner. He already snacks on fruits and vegetables, with a house rule that food stays in the kitchen (or on the front porch.)

The infant is a little fat, complete with leg creases. He is also being very spitty. I wonder if the two are related. He goes for his 6 moth checkup on Wednesday, and we will see what doctor says.

Finally, Critser is very critical of the literature suggesting that it is better to be fit than to be fat, and that if you are sufficiently active then your pudge does not matter. I know some wicked fast running butterballs (although distance running is a sport where you are better of being fat than being muscular). I also continue to believe that for a heavy person seeking to improve their quality of life, they are better off focusing on fitness and letting the belt come in as a side effect than they are focusing on yet another diet. But, how to sell this message without, as Critser warns, selling the message that fat does not matter?

So, from public health to private concerns, and back again.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:28 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Clancy & Zinni - Battle Ready

Tom Clancy
Battle ready
with Tony Zinni and Tony Koltz.
New York : G.P. Putnam's Sons, c2004.

This is the fourth in Clancy's commander's sequence. And, because it is the first to discuss 9/11 and the War in Iraq, it is the book that got the most critical notice. It has been out for a few months, but it took a while to wend its way through the library system to me.

Like the second and third volumes, this is more a biography and a comment on current events and world politics than a study in leadership principles per se. As such, it is compelling. Zinni comes off well: he is smart, forthright, sensitive, and far-sighted. He focuses on the importance of learning local culture, working with others, and planning before action.

I want to focus on two things, Somalia and Iraq.

Zinni was the lead guy on the ground early in Somalia; he also led the withdrawal from Somalia after the UN and the US cut and ran. He was not there during the middle period when the relief mission went to hell.

The problem in Somalia was that there were a LOT of warlords; they were fighting one another and looting any international aide; the crops were devastated; the people were starving; and until the security situation could be fixed the nation was a humanitarian tragedy in progress.

Zinni was one who urged working with the warlords, drawing them away from fighting and towards a diplomatic and eventually a political solution - "if they are talking, they aren't fighting." He worked with all of them, helped stabilize the situation, and could see a path to some sort of stable society and a democratic future.

Things fell apart after the US turned the nation over to the UN, and after reading Zinni's account of the transition I have a LOT more sympathy for the folks (mostly on the American right) who argue that the UN is inherently broken and will fuck up any important internation affair it gets involved with. Zinni does not go that far, but he does blame Boutrous-Boutrous Ghali for the mess in Somalia. He has many more kind words for Khofi Anan. The Bush 41 administration got us into Somalia. Clinton continued our presence there. The UN fucked up - including the battle of Mogadishu which he argues the UN local forces precipitated. Clinton chose to withdraw rather than start again from scratch. Zinni is quietly critical of that last decision, despite being generally favorable toward Clinton.

The big reason people are talking about this book is not Somalia but Al Quaeda and Iraq. Here also Zinni is opinionated and fairly compelling. He thought from the start that the US was paying too much attention to Saddaam Hussein. If we responded to everything he did, then we gave him the power to manipulate the world's remaining superpower. That raised his prestige. So while the Clintons had Iraq at about12 on their to do list, and Bush 43 moved him up to about 6, Zinni would have pushed him down to the low 20s, continued to contain him, but cut back on the confrontations and posturings.

Zinni generally liked Clinton's point decisions about Al Quaeda during the late 1990s, although I think he wishes there had been more systematic focus on non-state entities. He does not say, but from reading him I wonder if Al Quaeda was the evil equivalent of the Non Governmental Organizations that he had to work with in northern Iraq after 1991 and in Somalia later on - organizations that knew a lot and could help a lot but had trouble working with armed forces and national governments because they organized and acted in a sufficiently different manner. Still, Zinni liked that during the planning for the missile strikes on Al Quaeda Clinton told his military planners to ignore any political repercussions or "wag the dog" things - that was Clinton's problem not theirs - and simply provide the most effective plan for achieving the goal. Clinton was a quick study, and Zinni appears to have been more comfortable briefing the Big Dog than he was at briefing top level staffers.

As for the run up to Iraq itself, file Zinni among those who are appalled at the lack of planning, lack of serious coalition-building, scanty evidence, and lack of long term strategic planning. The current crisis in Sudan came to a head after Zinni wrote, but from reading Battle Ready I think I know what he would say about a situation where we have a genocide in progress and the US can not intervene because ALL of our ground forces are tied up in Iraq or in the rotation to replace the troops in Iraq.

As I read the book, I asked myself a couple of times if Zinni would make a good cabinet secretary or undersecretary, and if so then under which administration. He would be a poor fit for Bush 43, simply for reasons of personal style. I don't know if a Kerry administration should contact him for government service, and I don't know if he would accept. But he is a wonderful resource and someone both sides should be listening to.

Zinni closes by arguing that the United States has stumbled into what he calls an "empire of influence." Despite being the sole remaining superpower, we do not have the armed force to impose our will on more than a small fraction of the world. But, with the reach of the American economy, American media, and American culture, everything we do resonates around the world, and the whole world responds to changes in America and American policy. It is hard to run such a loose empire - an empire built on soft power - but it is crucial that we do. I dislike the term "empire of influence" but have not yet come up with something better. If I were to be tabbed to ask a question of Kerry and Dubya at a debate, I would ask them something about empires of influence, soft power, and the most effective way to spread democratic ideals and individual freedom around the globe.

Zinni made me think, and think differently, about foreign policy. Well worth reading.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:05 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 02, 2004

Karabell - Chester Alan Arthur

Zachary Karabell
Chester Alan Arthur
New York : Times Books, 2004.
ISBN 0805069518

This is part of the American Presidents series - a collection of short, readable, meaningful books about the Presidents.

When you mention Chester Arthur, the usual response is either "who dat?" or "civil service reform." Or for those like me who know a little more, we comment that here was a longtime political spoilsman who became president by accident after Garfield was murdered and who presided over the dismantling of the system that had brought him fame and fortune.

Karabell digs into the mechanics of late 19th-century machine politics, where a dedicated political class ran for office, distributed government jobs to their friends, dunned their friends for campaign contributions, and spent that money to try to win the next election. He argues that Arthur was a reasonable honest very successful practioner of the system, a man who spent most of his career as a follower and facilitator rather than as a principle, and a man who had mastered the art of doing nothing and succeeding thereby.

Karabell argues that civil service reform was a result of Garfield's murder and the midterm elections following, as Republicans dashed through a lame-duck bill so that they could take credit for a subject that had surprisingly become popular among voters. It was not an Arthur policy - he just signed the bill. On the other hand, despite Chester Arthur's lackadasical work habits, lack of policy initiatives, and general caretaker approach to the presidency, his four years were also four years of prosperity, economic growth, and labor peace - a marked contrast to the periods before and afterwards. He does not explain how, but he suggests that Arthur had the knack of keeping things running smoothly, and that this is an under-estimated knack. We never learn if Arthur was lucky or good, we simply learn that every office he prsided over ran quietly and efficiently while Arthur came in late and took long lunches.

Posted by Red Ted at 12:37 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 20, 2004

Hoffer - Devil's Disciples

Peter Charles Hoffer
The Devil's Disciples: Makers of the Salem Witchcraft Trials
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996

Hoffer offers another retelling of the Salem story. Unlike Boyer's focus on conflict within Salem town and Salem village, Karlsen's focus on systematic misogyny and constructed social behavior, Hall's focus on the world of wonders, and Carlson's explanation grounded in disease, Hoffer tells the tale as a prosopography. In his interpretation, the trials took place because of a combination of individuals, each with their own histories and motivations, connected by the vagaries of the Atlantic economy, and each responding to the others. It is a multivariate interpretation focusing on individual agency. As such it does a good job of telling the tale, a good job of using the tale to dig into some of the social interactions of the late seventeenth century, and a poor job - because he is not trying to do that job - of providing sweeping interpretations that could be used elsewhere. In that he bows strongly to the microhistorians - he is telling his tale, not trying to elucidate the rest of time and space in some grand theory of human behavior. As a result, the book works internally. We do get a good feel for the individuals, we do see how and why they act, and we do see some of the combination of motives and pressures that led the community to go along with the prosecutions.

Hoffer focuses on Tituba the black slave, Parrish the minister, and the three afflicted girls, with a later discussion of Cotton Mather's vindication of the trials as part of Mather's deep need to be seen to be useful to his society. He claims in his introduction that he is setting his tale in the Atlantic world, and to the extent that he focuses on the story of Tituba and Parrish this is true - the two met in Barbados, moved to Salem, and were caught up in a crisis driven in part by the Glorious Revolution in England, the Dominion of New England at home, and the legal difficulties of the colony. Still, his core explanation for the continued trials is that the three girls were colluding in their evidence, coaching one another in their behavior, and making up tales for the sheer pleasure of taking down the obnoxious people in their community and the great people in the colony. They went from nobodies to celebrities, and thus they must have been making up their tales. For the rest, he explains why people felt the need to accept the girls' tales, and he tells the overall story of the witch trials as a tragedy stemming from fallible humans each trying to solve their own problems and collectively creating a disaster. This is a common narrative mode in history writing, and an effective mode, but it can be a depressing mode when you think about it.

I think I will use this as part of my class on Salem.

Posted by Red Ted at 05:19 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Carlson - A Fever in Salem

Laurie Winn Carlson
A Fever in Salem: A New Interpretation of the New England Witch Trials
Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1999

Carlson argues that the Salem epidemic was lethargic encephalitis, the same disease that hit the US and parts of Europe in epidemic force in 1919 and 1920. The 1920 variety of encephalitis, a generic name for inflammations and infections of the brain, appears to have been carried by bugs and animals, and produced paralysis, hallucinations, and painful prickings. The symptoms match the accounts of the afflicted people in Salem. She postulates that this form of encephalitis is one that emerges and disappears at long intervals, and she finds another outbreak in New England in the 1740s that was interpreted as disease not as witchcraft, and some accounts from the early 17th century that also match the Salem symptoms.

It is an interesting proposal, one worth testing.
It does explain why afflictions and accusations were found outside of Salem - answering Boyer and Nussenbaum, and why both men and women were afflicted, answering Karlsen.
It does not explain the fits that the girls went through when confronted by some of the accused witches, unless the symptoms could somehow be provoked. Remember the trial of Martha Carey, where the girls trembled when Martha looked at them, and exhibited physical reactions mirroring what the accused did - she tilted her head, and they almost broke their necks.

Reviews have been skeptical, the most favorable pointing out that Carlson's explanation for why the accused acted this way is largely irrelevant to the historian's question of why the actions were interpreted as they were. Others have been less kind, jumping on her many errors of fact or poking holes in her hypothesis about the transmission and scope of the disease.

Mention in class as a possibility for the crisis, but don't use it as the "real" explanation.

Posted by Red Ted at 01:50 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 14, 2004

Conason & Lyons - The Hunting of the President

Joe Conason, Gene Lyons
The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton
Thomas Dunne Books; (February 2000)

I dug this out and read it while waiting for the library to get Bill Clinton's autobiography to me.

I knew the general story, but I did not know the details of the Whitewater investegation. The frustrating thing about the whole Clinton hunt is that I now effectively give them a free pass anytime I hear a story about financial skulldugerry on their part - there has been so much meaningless smoke that I assume that where there is smoke there is a cleverly placed smudge pot.

The other thing to watch in Conason & Lyons work is their use of "must have". They criticize most of the people who wrote anti-Clinton books for jumping to conclusions or making arguments by juxtaposing "facts" without proving the connections between those facts. This is fair, as is the fact that from time to time Lyons and Conason talk about what people "must have known" or "probably intended" and then tell their story without accounting for the implicit error bars in their chain of argument.

Their case stands up despite those holes, in part because they are discussing a "loose cabal" of people who for various reasons hated Bill and were very willing to dig for dirt or make up stories in order to get him. However, when the core to their argument is that the national news media fell down on its duty to check its facts and sources, and ended up in an echo chamber repeating accusations without ever going back to check each other's work, well, it makes the reader hold Lyons and Conason to a higher standard.

It was a nice quick read, and now I am working on Clinton's big book. I won't finish it before the library will want it back, but in the early pages of Clinton's autobiography I do see some comparisons with the early pages of Grant's autobiography.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:27 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 07, 2004

Clancy & Horner - Every Man a Tiger

Tom Clancy and Chuck Horner - Every Man a Tiger

This is the second in Clancy's commanders series. I am reading all of them because I want the context for the fourth one, the one in which Clancy of all people turns on the Bush adminstration for being too militaristic (and, more importantly for Clancy, for being ineffective.)

Where Franks' Into the Storm was a self-conscious discussion of leadership in the modern Army, Horner's story discusses leadership by giving examples leaving the explanation for the reader.

Still, a couple of good points jump out. The first is leadership by example: do as I do. Horner is a strong believer in this, in part because fighter pilot generals are expected to keep up their airplane driving chops.

The lesson for the Iraq war is slightly different. Horner was the first general on the ground for the Gulph War. He organized the early phases of Desert Sheild before Stormin Norman moved to Arabia and he continued to be an important player holding the coalition together. And, he repeatedly emphasizes that the whole thing would NOT have worked without the coaliton - it was the presence of other nations, the strong UN resolutions, and the committment to let everyone talk, let everyone have decision-making power, and not simply go it alone that made it possible for the thing to go in the first place.

I find in the classroom that the way to loose the class is to try to control it; the way to get the class where you want it to go is to relax and let them drive, then steer their energy to the desired points. War coalitions follow the same recipe - you only keep control by ceding control.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:46 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 06, 2004

Brazile - Cooking With Grease

Donna Brazile, Cooking With Grease

Read it, liked it, don't have much to say about it.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:44 AM | Comments (0)

June 09, 2004

Lenner - Federal Principle

Andrew Lenner, The Federal Principle in American Politics, 1790-1833

I turned every page on Monday, so I guess I read the book (I did skim some.)

Lenner is a bright guy working with a relatively defined body of material and coming up with some clever insights about it. He examines the Federal Principle, and especially the role of Natural Law and the Law of Nations, in American politics from the 1790s through Nullification. In many ways this is a sequel to Jack Greene's Peripheries and Center, although Lenner is more interested in the working of dual sovereignty while Green told the story of how dual sov. was invented.

Lenner reminded me of the importance that Natural Law and the Law of Nations held for the founders, I might blog on that on the main blog later this week.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:53 AM | Comments (0)

Clancy and Franks - Into the Storm

Tom Clancy and General Fred Franks, Into the Storm

This is the first of Clancy's Commanders series. Clancy is teaming up with senior or retired military leaders and working through a brief biography and a case study of a major event, all as a way to study the meaning of command (and sell books.)

The third in the series is controversial, while waiting to get it from the library I decided to read the first two. Franks is an interesting fellow - he lost part of a leg in Vietnam but returned to active duty; he commanded the VII corps during the Gulph War, coordinating thousands of vehicles and tens of thousands of soldiers in an attack on the Republican Guard; after the was he was one of the people who put together the "shock and awe" battle doctrine.

A few things jumped out at me from this. The first is that Franks certainly took the notion of command styles seriously; in every chapter he spends time explaining what a commander should do, how people should relate, and how they do relate to one another. Franks's style is low-key - no screaming and shouting - and he thinks that staff meetings should be vigorous. He sees a meeting as a chance for everyone to speak, for people to hash out their goals, and then for everyone to go execute.

Franks and Schwartzkof have very different command styles, and the difference in their styles was one of the problems in the Gulph War, for both men misunderstood the other.

The other thing that Franks and Clancy were pushing was that the Vietnam War really was very bad for the armed forces, destroying readiness, morale, and effectiveness, and that during the late 1970s and then 1980s the armed forces worked very hard and very effectively to reinvent themselves. My dad works with a retired Army general and is always effusive in his praise for the man's planning, decision-making, and people skills. Reading Franks' account of the Army training purpose, I was greatly impressed.

Franks and Clancy wrote the book in 1997, looking back at the Gulph War in terms of Vietnam. I read the book in 2004, looking back at the Gulph War in terms of the Iraqi invasion.

A couple of things jumped out at me. The first was that the Gulph War really was fought by Cold War tactics - the same tools that had been designed to slow or halt a Soviet wave coming through the Fulda Gap were turned around and used in the offensive to damage and almost destroy the Soviet-style Republican Guard. The Iraq War was fought with different maneuver elements, far fewer troops, and doctrine and technology that went even farther than the Gulph War had in giving information, navigation, and mission decisions to local units; in the Gulph War, only commanders' tanks had GPS and everyone else had to form on them while in Iraq I think everyone had it and could concentrate on what was around them and not on keeping formation.

The second was that I got a much better understanding of Wesley Clarke's critique of Rumsfield's plan for the war. Franks explains that the military planning starts with the mission statement, reviews the terrain, troops, and technologies available, and then works up a plan, adjusting the troop levels and the plan where appropriate. But, the whole very sophisticated and powerful planning process starts with the mission definition. Clarke complained that Rumsfield told his planners "Defeat Saddam Hussein" when he should have told them "Create conditions in Iraq condusive to creating a representative democracy." It is a subtle but huge difference - you can defeat Hussein with a small force and some risks - we did it. But it takes more warm bodies to create the security situation required for democracy, and it requires a different presence on the ground, control of different locations at the end of fighting - a very different mission.

I am glad I read it. I will read a couple of novels and then read the second in the series.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:42 AM | Comments (0)

June 03, 2004

Massie - Nicholas and Alexandra

Robert K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, (New York: Atheneum, 1967)

I read Massie's Dreadnaught many years ago and liked it.

After reading Sheila O'Malley's rave about this I grabbed it and dropped it into my light non-fiction shelf. I also grabbed Massie's Steel Castles which I will read soon.

Massie has found a niche - he is immersed in the lives and personalities of world rulers at the turn of the twentieth century. He then tells the tale of the Belle Epoque and the Great War through those rulers, explaining the path to war in part through their personal foibles.

This approach works wonderfully for Nicholas and Alexandra. Massie argues convincingly that the Russian Empire fell because of Tsarevitch Alexis's hemophelia combined with the fact that both Nicholas and Alexandra were loving parents. From one medical fact and some personalities, all else follows. Otherwise, he suggests at the end, Russia was well on its way to becoming a constitutional monarchy during the Great War, with Nicholas ceding some power to the Duma as responsible reform, excluding the poor from political power for a while, and relying on the massive emotional pull of Orthodoxy and the Tsar to hold the nation together.

But it failed, and Massie tells us why.

For that reason it is a hard book to read - not just because the list of chapters ends with Ekaterinberg and we all know what happened there, but because the first four hundred pages are a train wreck happening in slow motion. In his classic anecdote of the bomb under the table, Alfred Hitchcock defined suspense as being when the audience knows that something terrible is about to happen, the characters on screen do not know it will happen, and so the audience is all worried to see if the characters will escape.

In Hitchcock's version, the audience knows there is a bomb under the table, but does not know if the people sitting at table will finish their conversation and leave before the bomb blows up. For Nicholas and Alexandra, we know that not only do they not stand up, they actually take steps that will make the bomb more explosive. And so we get to watch as well meaning people screw up by the numbers. It is a painful read; historians like to dissect failures so we can see what went wrong, but it can be hard to read about failure, especially for those of us with a limited capacity for schadenfrude (spelling?).

Good book - anyone who likes reading about people should read it.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:02 AM | Comments (0)

May 17, 2004

Porter - Lion's Share

Bernard Porter
The Lion's Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983
2nd Ed. (London: Longman Group UK Limited, 1984)

I bought this a few years back on a whim while wandering through the course text section at University. I have been nibbling on it as my light history book over the last few months. I finally finished it, though I admit to being out of it and not reading the conclusion carefully enough.

Some useful information, will use it to change part of my discussion of Europe and the World when next I teach Western Civ, but my biggest thoughts on this have to do with Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress which I am still "reading" as a book on tape and which I will blog about once I finish listening to it.

Posted by Red Ted at 04:32 AM | Comments (0)

April 28, 2004

Newmyer - Joseph Story

R. Kent Newmyer, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story: Statesman of the Old Republic (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1985)

More Joseph Story. Newmyer emphasizes Story the conservative, starting with his Republican roots but framing his mature thought in Burkean lines, and even showing Story making approving references to Metternich. His Story is not the Madisonian Republican but the American Burke or Blackstone, appealing to the common law as the basis for a framework of jurisdiction that would restrain the Jacksonian devolution of the Republic.

Useful stuff.

Posted by Red Ted at 12:44 PM | Comments (0)

Story - Joseph Story

William W. Story [ed] Life and Letters of Joseph Story (New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1971), 2 vol. Orig pub 1851.

Most major political and religious leaders of the nineteenth century had their deaths followed by a volume of life and letters, commonly edited by a son or grandson. It was an act of fileopietism to create one of these volumes, and historians are very glad of that impulse.

William Story here combined the narrative of an autobiography written by his father with extracts from Joseph Story's letters, letters about Joseph story from his contemporaries, and comments on some of the more significant cases. It is a big book - each volume is some 575 pages - and luckily I was able to gut it, skimming for content and only commonplacing a few pages of notes.

More Joseph Story, some useful quotes including some letters on Christianity and the Common Law.

Now I get to think about how exactly I want to use Story in chapters two and three.

Posted by Red Ted at 03:37 AM | Comments (0)

April 25, 2004

Dunne - Joseph Story

Gerald Dunne, Justice Joseph Story and the Rise of the Supreme Court

I am reading up on Story because he figures prominently in chapter two and in the framing section for chapter three. I had, for example, filed him as a Federalist because of his buddies and his later whigdom. Dunne reminded me that Story had been a street-fighting Republican in the late 1790s and early 1800s - getting into at least one fistfight in 1803 - before making friends with Federalists while working on the Yazoo Land case and then being named to the Supreme Court.

Story appears to have been a National Republican - a Madisonian not a Jeffersonian - and he took this perspective into DeuteroFederalism in the 1810s and then into Whiggery in the 1840s.

It was a useful book, though I skimmed more than I read.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:24 AM | Comments (0)

April 03, 2004

Marty - Righteous Empire

Martin E Marty, Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America
New York, Dial Press, 1970

A pop-history review of American Protestant religious history. A couple of useful quotes to thicken the dissertation. He focuses on consensus and argues that Evangelicals were effectively everything. I focus on the tension between the one and the many and argue that Evangelicals were terrified that they would become nothing - a difference in emphasis that leads us to very different conclusions.

Good stuff, nice read, a little dated.

Posted by Red Ted at 12:45 PM | Comments (0)

March 26, 2004

Hanson - Soul of Battle

Victor David Hanson, The Soul of Battle

Not compelling. Popular history of Epaminidous of Thebes, William Tecumseh Sherman, and George Patton. I got partway through Thebes and realized that I did not care to spend the time to figure out if he was blowing smoke by writing internal contradictions or if he had something useful to say.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:25 AM | Comments (0)

March 25, 2004

Wright - Beginnings of Unitarianism

Conrad Wright, The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America
Archon press
Repring of the Beacon Press, Boston, 1966 edition.

"Skim has the same number of letters as read."

Wright reviews the "Arminian" theology of the liberal wing of the New England Establishment from 1734 to 1805. Mostly an examination of the words and theology of the liberals, contrasting them with both Old Calvinists and Jonathan Edwards. Wright is smart, as were the Unitarians, and he makes some good points about both the similarites and differences between the two wings.

Things to remember: supernatural rationalism, much like Locke the Arminians believed that people must use reason to evaluate revelation, and that revelation existed and was really a revelation.

And so to run errands.

Posted by Red Ted at 12:28 PM | Comments (0)