Note: I wrote this quickly so please think of it more as an extended tweet than a polished foray
Whether and how academics should engage with that vague entity known as “the public” has been a topic of much conversation this winter/spring, from Nick Kristof’s ham-handed call for a renewal of the “public intellectual” to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s plea for historians to be more involved in debates about poverty and race. Coates stirred up a lot of back-and-forth in that reality-TV-for-office-workers entertainment known as “the blogosphere” by basically synthesizing some fairly mainstream consensus views of academic historians about white supremacy’s imbrication in American history and political structures, views which apparently (we have now learned) sound scary, radical, and “fatalistic” when translated into the pundit realm but which I can assure you I have encountered from many very far-from-radical, in fact fairly conventional bourgeois university-employed academics, because such views represent the most fitting interpretation of the historical evidence that we currently have uncovered and as we currently understand it (sorry to be a conventional bourgeois empiricist or whatever).
When I read Coates’s plea for historians to be involved in these debates, I had the following reaction: I certainly agree that historians have useful insight to offer (having found historians so insightful that I decided to try and become one), but I also think, as I noted somewhere on Twitter that I can’t find now, that the problem is not that historians are not participating in debates. Historians’ work is out there as much as any academic work is out there (open-access type questions being a separate issue but not one along which I think history meaningfully differs from other disciplines; and if anything, since historians have professional incentives to publish books rather than articles, their work is usually available for purchase or at the library, not locked in secret Elsevier gardens), and moreover, academic history, certainly the literature on twentieth-century American history, tends to be much less jargon- and model-laden than the social sciences, thus should be more accessible. So, I think the problem is not so much access or a lack of participation on historians’ part but more that journalists sometimes have a real resistance to seeing history as a separate domain of expertise, akin to economics or poli sci, rather than just a more esoteric and backwards-looking version of what they do.
Anyway, so I was thinking about all this as I was doing some reading on the War on Poverty the other day, and I want to quickly note how I saw this this journalist-historian divide playing out in that context. Continue reading
In the past two years, Chief Justice Roberts has authored two opinions for the Supreme Court in important cases concerning congressional regulation of voting and elections. The first, Shelby County v. Holder, struck down as unconstitutional a key component of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the statute empowering the federal government to monitor states with a history of racially discriminatory voting procedures. The second, today’s McCutcheon v. FEC, struck down as unconstitutional certain congressional limits on how much money an individual political donor can contribute in any one campaign cycle.
Here are the first two lines that Chief Justice Roberts wrote in these two opinions; see if you can guess which came from which:
The [congressional statute at issue] employed extraordinary measures to address an extraordinary problem.
There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.
Which line would you guess had to do with the problem of wealthy campaign donors enjoying privileged access to elected representatives, and which line would you guess had to do with the problem of America’s long and violent history of limiting the franchise by race? Here’s the answer: the first sentence is from Shelby County, and the second is from McCutcheon.
Both cases turned on complex statutory schemes and constitutional doctrines, and I’m not here making any argument about the specific legal issues, holdings, or outcomes. One could agree with the holdings of neither, one, or both cases and still, I think, share my observation that, as a rhetorical matter, the difference in emphasis is striking. “Call me Ishmael,” “Lolita, light of my life,” “Happy families are all alike,” “I am an invisible man”: first sentences matter. The “right [most] basic in our democracy,” the individual “right to participate” — the heart of the Voting Rights Act, the right for which John Lewis had his skull cracked on Alabama’s Pettus Bridge — was not given pride of place in the opening line of Roberts’s Shelby County opinion. It was given pride of place in McCutcheon, a lawsuit brought by an Alabama businessman “who contributed a total of some $33,000 to 16 candidates for federal office in the 2012 election cycle,” and “wanted to give $1,776 each to 12 more” but was legally barred from doing so.
Two memories from second or third grade: the fall of ’91, when the Braves swelled our little hearts with their miraculous “worst-to-first” season, and the morning the year before that we’d gathered in the school auditorium before a television rolled in on a cart, to watch the International Olympic Committee make its fateful announcement of the site of the ’96 games: “It’s Atlanta!” Thereafter the Braves and the Olympics hovered over my Atlanta childhood like helicopters, these buzzing presences that were always up there, flying awkwardly but flying nonetheless. They gave me the illusion that I lived in a big-deal city, which is precisely the illusion that Atlanta’s city fathers have been striving to generate in residents and observers alike for over a century, whether through Henry Grady’s paeans to the New South or Mayor Hartsfield’s encomiums to “The City Too Busy to Hate.”
Well, it’s no longer Atlanta for the Atlanta Braves, or so it seems. Continue reading
The Arizona Legislature is apparently considering a bill that would sanction schoolteachers for “engag[ing] in speech or conduct that would violate [FCC standards] concerning obscenity, indecency, and profanity if that speech or conduct were broadcast on television or radio.” Most commentators have fixated upon the many constitutional and pedagogical problems raised by the law’s end — policing teacher language and conduct — and rightly so.
Still, I must admit that I’m far more befuddled by the law’s means. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there might be some valid reason to regulate teachers’ speech and conduct. Upon a modicum of reflection it’s pretty obvious that importing FCC standards could never be a remotely sensible or even possible way of achieving this regulatory goal. Broadcast standards are literally not applicable without reference to an actual broadcast. Continue reading
I don’t usually follow politics closely, but I do have a great fondness for weekly elimination reality TV shows like “American Idol,” “Top Chef,” and “The Voice.” Since the GOP primary has basically turned into one of those shows, whatwith its regularly scheduled on-stage performances and someone voted off by the viewers each week, I’ve started watching.
And I’ve noticed some confusion, among the candidates, about the history of immigration law.
At tonight’s debate, Rick Santorum presented the following account of his family to explain why he opposes “a pathway to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants: Continue reading
In the 1870s and 1880s, Americans kept dying, or losing limbs, because they were getting hit by trains. Now, you might say, who cares? It’s people’s own fault if they are stupid enough to walk onto a train track. That’s not, it turns out, how Americans and their governments reacted at the time. As the casualties mounted, the state railroad commissions — relatively new agencies set up to monitor and regulate railroad safety — “conclud[ed] that enough was enough; no man had a right to willfully risk his life.”
So writes Barbara Young Welke in her fascinating work of legal and cultural history, Recasting American Liberty: Gender, Race, Law, and the Railroad Revolution, 1865-1920. When I heard about the other night’s GOP primary debate, in which Dr. Ron Paul emphasized the need for “personal responsibility” and audience members cheered the notion that a man who decides not to purchase health insurance should be allowed to die, I immediately thought of Recasting American Liberty. Continue reading
Representation is an odd thing. As a professor of mine once hinted, it’s as much an aesthetic as a political concept. Why does red represent anger? Why does a triangle atop a square represent a house? Why do lines criss-crossing one way represent Christianity, lines criss-crossing another way represent the Nazi regime? Why does Anna Eshoo, a person whom I have never met, and whose political views I could not tell you, represent me in Washington, D.C.? (I just Googled Anna Eshoo so as to provide a link, and as a result, for the first time, I now know what she looks like. I pass by her local office on the way to the grocery store, though, and I’ve voted for her.) Continue reading
Adrian Vermeule summarizes John McCormick’s proposal for reforming America:
He proposes an amendment to the Constitution that would establish a People’s Tribunate—a randomly selected group of common citizens whose income or wealth may not be too high and who have not made a career of holding public office, and who assemble for a one-year non-renewable term. Omitting the intricate details of the scheme, the main powers of the Tribunate during its annual term would be to veto one congressional enactment, one executive order, and one Supreme Court decision, to initiate one national referendum whose product if approved by the voters would have the force of a federal statute, and to initiate impeachment proceedings against one federal official from each branch of government.
With the news of the massacre in Norway comes the news that Norway’s maximum prison term is 21 years. The self-appointed pundits are angry:
“Most murderers in Norway spend just 14 years behind bars. The terrorist is 32 years old. He will get out when he’s 53. That means he’s serving about 3 months for every person he murdered. Justice?” asked a blogger at Big Peace.
Now, there may well be arguments to make that 21 years is not enough punishment for the perpetrator of this horror. But this particular argument cannot be it. It rests upon an obviously absurd premise: that there is any number of months, or years, or decades, or eternities that would ever be commensurate to the number of persons he murdered — that would ever amount to “justice.” Continue reading
Recently, I’ve noticed a tendency among everyone’s favorite denizens — web commenters — to make facile but elaborate analogies between the national debt and their personal credit card bills. But whatevs: when you read some random anonymous typer’s earnest explanation of how the debt ceiling is the precise equivalent of your college-age daughter’s MasterCard limit, you always have the option to assure yourself, “Well, it’s the Internet. Anyone can say anything” and move on with your day.
But now our president, too, has adopted the trope — for instance, last night in his latest speech on the Great Debt Ceiling Impasse of 2011, in which he stated: Continue reading