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eric

The location of memory

by Eric on June 29, 2014

A quick gloss on John’s post below. American educators now and then decry the failure to remember World War I. Of course that’s only an American failure – World War I is etched into the civic landscape of even small villages throughout the British Empire (starting with Canada).

Meanwhile, at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford, you will find this exhibit:

Forgotten by whom?

Which is laughable here in California – here that’s the only war we do remember.

It’s terribly easy to find an inadequate memory of one or another war – all you have to do is ask a child, or someone in the wrong region of the country, or of the world. Where would we look to find an adequate memory of the war? Where do we want it enshrined?

Lepore on disruption

by Eric on June 24, 2014

Jill Lepore deserves an award for her New Yorker essay against the gospel of disruption. The last paragraph alone is a sufficiently fine piece of writing to warrant reading the whole thing.

For those of you blessedly unfamiliar with the theory of disruptive innovation, it goes like this: Everyone, every institution that is superb at providing a product or service is in truth a Goliath, merely waiting for a little innovative David to topple him with a better way to do his job. Why work up your muscles to carry a cudgel if you can deal death with a slingshot?

Amazon has disrupted book-selling. Online commentary has disrupted journalism. MOOCs will disrupt the university (people swear).

You who are merely doing your job exceptionally well and profitably – you are a complacent fool.

In her essay, Lepore beats the tar out of the scholarship that gave rise to this preaching. Apart from pointing the article out to you, I want to comment briefly on how she says what she says. In truth, Lepore gives two arguments for the price of one, and it’s the second that I find more fetching and worth a little extra remark.

Mainly, and entertainingly, she points out the entire theory of disruptive innovation is bunk on its own terms. It neither explains what it’s meant to explain, nor predicts what it’s meant to predict. It’s a fable that comforts the comfortable, by depicting their rapacious waste as the inevitable manner of capitalism’s progress. I won’t try to summarize what Lepore says about the embarrassing failures of the theory, because she already says it well.

But Lepore makes a secondary argument you could almost miss. She notes that even if the theory of disruption were sound, there are certain human activities to which it should not be applied.

Innovation and disruption are ideas that originated in the arena of business but which have since been applied to arenas whose values and goals are remote from the values and goals of business. People aren’t disk drives. Public schools, colleges and universities, churches, museums, and many hospitals, all of which have been subjected to disruptive innovation, have revenues and expenses and infrastructures, but they aren’t industries in the same way that manufacturers of hard-disk drives or truck engines or drygoods are industries. Journalism isn’t an industry in that sense, either.

Lepore says all this, but spends little time on it; having noted that people aren’t disk drives, she spends most of her essay observing that the theory of disruptive innovation doesn’t really apply to disk drives anyway.

I’d hazard a guess Lepore knows her essay works better this way. A significant portion of her readership would find it tedious to be told less briefly that we need to remember, or revive, the language of public trust, public interest, public service.

Lepore’s choice of emphasis reminds me of the origins of American liberalism in a different age. Back in the early 1900s, Charles Beard noted that merely to tell Americans that their factories were injuring workers more wantonly than those of any other country would fail to move a nation so fixated on profit. You had, he said (and I’m paraphrasing, because I’m not able to look it up at the moment), to tell the American people that it was inefficient to keep killing workers – that it was a waste of human capital, an unproductive use of resources.

This rhetorical tactic aims at moral ends by appealing to a venal calculus. Like the commuter who rescued his fellow-citizen from a train track because he didn’t want to be late to work, maybe we will rescue our public goods from disruption – not because it’s the right thing to do, but because we won’t profit if we don’t.

HHhH, by Laurent Binet

I came to Laurent Binet’s book about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich late; it was published in 2012 in English, and attracted largely positive attention then. It takes up the true story of a British-aided 1942 mission by the Beneš government-in-exile to kill Heydrich, then Hitler’s satrap in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia as well as SS-leader Heinrich Himmler’s number two (Binet’s book says the title comes from the phrase, Himmler’s Hirn heisst Heydrich: Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich). Binet manages remarkably to make the book both a well told thriller and an extended mediation on the writer’s relation to history and the fiction he is making of it.

Together with some other British-trained Czechoslovak commandos on other missions, two assassins – Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík; a Czech and a Slovak – parachuted from a Halifax into a field near Prague, made contact with the resistance, and eventually ambushed and waylaid Heydrich’s Mercedes. Gabčík faced down the car with a Sten gun, which jammed and failed to fire. Kubiš charged from the rear with a grenade, which went off near the car’s rear wheel, driving fragments of the vehicle into Heydrich’s body. The assassins fled. Heydrich tried to shoot Gabčík, then collapsed. Taken to a hospital, Heydrich received good treatment but afterward died of an infection. Hitler and the Nazi high command gave him a martyr’s funeral. On the strength of a spurious connection, the Germans destroyed the city of Lidice, killing its inhabitants, razing it to the ground, and salting the earth. They also named an expanded program for carrying out the Final Solution (of which Heydrich had been a principal engineer) “Aktion Reinhard”. With the help of a parachutist who decided to betray his fellows, the Germans discovered Kubiš and Gabčík, together with a number of their colleagues, holed up in a Church and, over many blundering and violent hours, eventually smoked, flooded, and blasted them out of hiding; the commandos died rather than suffer capture.

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Brother, that’s socialism. You know it is.

by Eric on December 10, 2013

The Guardian carries David Simon’s remarks on the “horror show” that is modern America. These were, evidently, impromptu comments, so no fair, I guess, critiquing them too closely. But it’s hard not to note that Simon has lumped in “I’m not a Marxist but” with the other unpersuasive disclaimers, “I’m not a feminist but” and “I’m not a racist but”.

The political landmarks are implicit in his dates – 1980 was when things began to go seriously wrong, after having taken a turn for the better in 1932.
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The recovery of the degenerate

by Eric on November 5, 2013

German authorities have recovered a cache of modernist paintings from behind a stack of tin cans in a Munich apartment. Many of the works were presumably looted by Nazis as examples of “degenerate” work. You can see one of the recovered Chagalls here.

The pieces were in the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, “son of a well-known Nazi-era art dealer.” That “-era” is doing a lot of work in that phrase, one suspects; according to the LAT article, Gurlitt père was “appointed by the Nazi regime” to deal with looted artwork, though the Guardian notes he had lost his post because he was half-Jewish. A complex story, perhaps.

The Guardian also suggests that Gurlitt fils got by over the years by occasionally selling off an unknown masterpiece.

Even very limited experience of the world of collectibles suggests it is full of these dark vortices, open secrets to the cognoscenti but unknown to the wider world, in which strange treasures abide.

I suppose we may be grateful the Nazis did not take the same preservationist attitude to degenerate physics they took to degenerate art. There’s rather a good description of the Nazi “anti-art” displays on Radio 4’s Front Row here.

There is no crisis in crisis-mongering

by Eric on October 31, 2013

The New York Times tells us today that undergraduate interest in the humanities is fading. The basis for the claim is the reduction in interest at Stanford, where the humanities claim 45 percent of the faculty but only 15 percent of the students, and Harvard, which has seen a 20 percent decline in humanities majors over the last ten years.

But Stanford and Harvard are both special cases, and Stanford is especially special.

And as my co-blogger Ari Kelman points out, the overall numbers for the humanities don’t look like they’re in quite a crisis. As Ari says, “in 1970-1971, 17.1% of students who received BAs in the United States majored in a humanities discipline. Three decades later, in the midst of the crisis in the humanities we hear so much about, that number had plummeted to 17%.”

Ari’s numbers come from the National Center for Education Statistics, which shows something more genuinely resembling a crisis in the social sciences, which over the same period have gone from 23% of bachelor’s degrees to 16.4% of bachelor’s degrees.

But the NYT article is right about one thing – some administrators and faculty sure want there to be a crisis in the humanities, because that means they can cut the humanities.

A graph of the NCES data appears below the fold. Clearly the big growth area is undergraduate business and “other” majors. [click to continue…]

You shall know their names

by Eric on October 25, 2013

California just hit up the Koch brothers for a million bucks. The Koch brothers haven’t admitted hiding behind shell outfits while throwing scads of dollars at initiatives meant to break unions and block tax increases in the Golden State, but the fine is part of a settlement in a case launched to find out if they did so hide and throw.

The California group opposed to public goods wanted big money, so they went to the Kochs on the ground that “nobody in California would want to do this[.]” They appear to have viewed the Kochs as a right-wing money milch cow: “dealing with the Koch network … availability of funds never crossed our mind.”

I love with an unseemly passion the – hastily? purposely? sleepily? – inept redaction that allows the Sacramento Bee to make informed guesses about the other donors to the cause of destroying the state parks and public schools as well as killing labor. These guesses include the family that owns the Gap and “Ventura County businessman Gene Haas, who.… served 16 months in a halfway house in 2008 and 2009 after pleading to conspiracy to commit tax evasion.”

The tax increase that passed is the one that led to the state’s celebrated balanced budget. The million dollar fine might help balance the budget a little, too. Maybe we should hope for some more feckless and shady out of state donations, followed by more fines – then perhaps we could restore California’s public services, including her great universities, to the people who live here instead of eroding them to please ideologues from elsewhere.

The state of Georgia will move the statue of populist hero and white supremacist demagogue Tom Watson from its prominent spot near the state capitol. Beautifully, the state claims it’s nothing to do with politics.

“This is just part of an ongoing project to renovate the steps around the State Capitol,” said Paul Melvin, a Georgia Building Authority spokesman. “We’re moving the statue because of the construction. To move it back would be a prohibitive cost that’s not in the budget.”

Republican state representative Tommy Benton sees it differently and blames, well, “them.”

“They’re attempting to whitewash history so that only the things that are pertinent to them are remembered,” Mr. Benton said. “I’m not a big fan of William Sherman’s, but I’m not out there protesting his statues in other states because he did $100 million worth of damage in Georgia.”

The New York Times does its readers a disservice by failing to mention that at the time the vandal William Sherman did this terrible property damage to Georgia, the state was treasonably waging war on the United States of America in defense of slavery. (Tom Watson, who merely supported an unconstitutional form of racial segregation with viciously bigoted rhetoric, was a piker compared to supporters of the rebellion.) Whatever his many failings, Sherman did defend the republic of the United States against the acts of traitors. It is a pity an elected official of the Republican party cannot describe himself as a fan.

They named them the Special Collections

by Eric on October 18, 2013

The UK has a law providing that government documents become public after thirty years, which is an admirably strong provision – unless it’s ignored. [click to continue…]

A remembrance of Montagu Norman

by Eric on October 17, 2013

From James Warburg’s oral history: [click to continue…]

Eighty years ago today, on October 16, 1933, Franklin Roosevelt decided to push up the price of wheat, to increase the income, and purchasing power, of depression-struck farmers. He thought that the way to make wheat more costly was to have the government buy some. But was it the large purchase, which limited supply, that affected the price? Or was it the announcement of a purchasing program that shifted expectations and affected prices? [click to continue…]

Segregation centennial

by Eric on October 15, 2013

It’s the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and the Kennedy assassination, both in their way notable events in the history of African American civil rights. But it is also the hundredth anniversary of a different, equally notable event: the racial segregation of the US government in 1913 under newly elected president Woodrow Wilson. [click to continue…]

On the buying of the Washington Post

by Eric on August 5, 2013

The last time the Washington Post was suffering financial difficulties and looking for a buyer, the President of the United States took an interest in getting it a politically sympathetic owner. This was back in early 1933, during the last long lame-duck presidency, when Herbert Hoover was in the White House refusing his appointees’ entreaties to do something about the financial collapse. He claimed he wouldn’t do anything about the nation’s banks unless he had Franklin Roosevelt’s cooperation – and he wouldn’t have Franklin Roosevelt’s cooperation unless Roosevelt swore he would maintain the gold standard and forswear deficit spending.

But Hoover was willing to expend his presidential influence in trying to find the Post a buyer who wasn’t the Democrat and then-Roosevelt-backer William Randolph Hearst.

After talking about the Post with Hoover, newspaper owner Frank Gannett sent an auditor to look the paper over. He found that while the Post had made $23,907 in 1929, it had lost $117,335 in 1930; $140,364 in 1931; and an estimated lost of $275,000 in 1932. Ad revenues had dropped from $1.37 million in 1929 to $629,000 for the eleven months of 1932 with available information.

In consequence, Gannett wrote to Hoover, “the property does not present a very attractive picture.” He went on, “I hate to see the paper go to Hearst. Yet, he seems to be the only one who could afford it at this time, to make any payment for it.” Gannett concluded, “However, if support for the project could be developed, I would be glad to do my part in trying to get control of it and make it a forceful spokesman for the party.”

Notwithstanding his thrashing in the November elections, Hoover, even out of office, wanted the Post to go to “a strong man,” as he wrote on March 28. After leaving DC, Hoover tried to get his former Secretary of the Treasury, Ogden Mills, to join Senator George Moses and Post editor Ira Bennett in a group to buy the Post when it went up for auction on June 1.

Eugene Meyer was still running the Federal Reserve System, though not for long – Roosevelt had declared privately on March 25 that Meyer was on his way out. Meyer was a friend of Hoover’s – though like most of the country he was not, in March of 1933, much enamored of Hoover’s presidency. Nevertheless, he and his wife Agnes remained in touch with the former president.

Meyer bought the Post at auction on June 1, and made himself president, and his wife Agnes vice president. Hoover sent his congratulations. Agnes wrote back that she looked forward to “the opportunity to build up a really strong and independent paper in Washington under present circumstances seemed too important to be renounced.”

Eugene Meyer hired Ralph Robey away from the New York Evening Post “particularly to fight the inflationary policies of Mr. Roosevelt and his crowd, who” – Meyer said with evident annoyance – “thought they could cure the depression by raising the price of gold which was devaluating the dollar and repudiating the explicit contract of government to pay in dollars of the same weight of gold and fineness.” Meyer also objected strongly to the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, and other New Deal measures.

Post reporters complained afterward that Meyer “went over their articles and changed them so that their writers were all disgusted.”

Will we find someday that Barack Obama cared who the Post went to? Will Jeff Bezos take a role in determining the paper’s content? Stay tuned…

The American Historical Association encourages a 6-year “embargo” of completed history PhD dissertations in digital form, because making dissertations thus “free and immediately accessible.… poses a tangible threat to the interests and careers of junior scholars in particular” because “historians will find it increasingly difficult to persuade publishers to make the considerable capital investments necessary to the production of scholarly monographs.”

The AHA is in that last key sentence making a prediction, based on what evidence I don’t know. Have publishers made threats to publish fewer monographs because the underlying dissertations were available online? (As opposed to, because they lose money on publishing monographs, irrespective of where and how the underlying dissertation was available?)

Dan Drezner, a political scientist, and Brad DeLong, an economist, have expressed incredulity.

Economists certainly make working papers freely available online, and have a culture of sharing information. I know of no evidence that economic journals – including journals of economic history – are loath to publish articles based on working papers, nor of evidence that the American Economic Association is seeking to embargo unpublished work in economics.

There is something obviously wrong in a scholarly discipline seeking to limit the availability of knowledge. I don’t think it’s historically how historians have operated, either.

Hanging as inspiration or admonition over the researchers’ sign-in book at the FDR presidential library is a framed application for a reader’s card from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. There’s a story that historians tell about Schlesinger at the FDR library – that he was there at the same time as some other early FDR biographers, and that he would, if he found something of note, type it up and give it to them.1

I’ve tried to emulate Schlesinger’s openness and generosity myself. There are four writers currently working on books related to my own, and I send them material when I think it apposite – in the hope they will share with me, and also that this sharing will make our respective books stronger, for having been the product of a community of inquiry rather than an individual quest.

When we find ourselves trying to make scholarship less readily available – however good our intentions – we should probably ask ourselves if we can solve our problems some other way.


1I’m nearly sure this story appears in print somewhere, but I don’t know where.

John Maynard Keynes met Franklin Roosevelt on Monday, May 28, 1934. Both afterward said polite things to Felix Frankfurter, who had urged the two to confer: Keynes described the conversation was “fascinating and illuminating,” while Roosevelt wrote that “I had a grand talk and liked him immensely.”

But the best-known account is probably that of Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, who wrote in her memoir, The Roosevelt I Knew,

Keynes visited Roosevelt in 1934 rather briefly, and talked lofty economic theory.

Roosevelt told me afterward, “I saw your friend Keynes. He left a whole rigmarole of figures. He must be a mathematician rather than a political economist.”

It was true that Keynes had delivered himself of a mathematical approach to the problems of national income, public and private expenditure, purchasing power, and the fine points of his formula. Coming to my office after his interview with Roosevelt, Keynes repeated his admiration for the actions Roosevelt had taken, but said cautiously that he had “supposed the President was more literate, economically speaking.” He pointed out once more that a dollar spent on relief by the government was a dollar given to the grocer, by the grocer to the wholesaler, and by the wholesaler to the farmer, in payment of supplies. With one dollar paid out for relief or public works or anything else, you have created four dollars’ worth of national income.

I wish he had been as concrete when he talked to Roosevelt, instead of treating him as though he belonged to the higher echelons of economic knowledge.

In Perkins’s story, Roosevelt did not grasp economic theory, and would have done better with a less figure-laden account of Keynes’s prescriptions. Historians often recycle her description as evidence of Roosevelt’s “limited understanding of some of the matters he had to deal with as president,” as Adam Cohen writes.

And yet we have evidence that Roosevelt was quite happy dealing with economic theory and a rigmarole of figures.

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