Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The New Public Intellectuals: A Response to Nicholas Kristof

Nick Kristof's Sunday New York Times piece ("Professors, We Need You!") decrying the decline of the public intellectual has been the op-ed that launched a thousand think-pieces. Corey Robin's excellent blog post highlighting the many public intellectuals who toil in relative digital obscurity and Carol Emberton's thoughtful letter to Kristof criticizing his myopic exclusion of the abundance of professors and graduate students engaging the public through blogs and in the classroom, represent two of the best of these responses. Despite the proliferation of comments on Kristof's piece, I think two fundamental problems with Kristof's op-ed are being ignored: first, a nostalgia for a bygone era of a public intellectual that I'm not certain ever existed and second, a misplaced implied belief in a public monoculture for intellectuals to reach.

In his complaining about "turgid prose" and academics' sealing themselves away from the public in ivory prisons, Kristof is vague about what he is comparing this era of public-intellectual disengagement to. Throughout his piece there is an implication that we need to return to the good ole days when intellectuals were pivotal figures in public debates about policy, society, and culture. But when were these halcyon days? For my dissertation I'm writing about university based China specialists, a group who yearned to reach a broad public and shape policy. What I've found is that even in the supposed 'golden age of the expert' in the 1930s and 1940s, even the most prominent China scholars were marginal voices in public debates. Even John K. Fairbank, a man with Harvard pedigree and relationships in government (he worked for the Office of Strategic Services and Office of War Information during World War II) and journalism (he was Theodore H. White's advisor), had little influence when compared to non-academic China pundits like Pearl Buck and Henry Luce. For academic China scholars and, I suspect many scholars, finding a public receptive to their ideas proved elusive even in the best of times.

Beyond overstating the past relationship between university intellectuals and the public, Kristof short-changes the public contribution intellectuals make today by positing a kind of unified public which intellectuals could reach if only they were more willing. Does this unified public exist? There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about the death of an American monoculture. The internet has made it easier to connect with similarly interested people across great expanses and the proliferation of cultural forms from small indie music labels, to cable TV channels (AMC, HBO, Sundance, etc.) and Netflix, and torrenting limited release films has created too much pop culture for any mortal to follow. Just as the monoculture has died in music, TV, and film, it has also compromised the ability for intellectuals to reach a broad, unified public. Just as my generation has no great American rock band or M*A*S*H finale, it won't have an Arthur Schlesinger Jr. or a "Culture of Narcissism". The public intellectual, as Kristof understands the term, is a relic.

This does not mean that professors and graduate students are not doing work that makes a difference to people outside academia. There are more public intellectuals than ever before, just not in the narrow sense of Kristof's definition. The new public intellectuals don't reach a public, we reach publics. We contribute articles to print and digital publications like Slate and The Atlantic. We write blog posts which often reach thousands of people across the world. We give public lectures on our research and teach students who then disseminate their views outside the university. We offer unprecedented transparency into our research and writing processes through social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

The new public intellectuals are difficult to find, not because they do not exist, but because they are so enmeshed with their publics that it is challenging to determine where the intellectual ends and her readership begins. Technology has made it possible for scholars to interact with their readers with greater ease than ever before. We are also more skeptical about power than ever before and the bifurcation between 'intellectual' and non-intellectual. The new public intellectual recognizes that everyone has ideas and that, while academics may have expert knowledge of a sort, they do not have an exceptional status as producers of ideas.

The new public intellectuals are difficult to find because they don't stand above the crowd, they are the crowd.

Monday, December 16, 2013

December 2013 Major of the Month: Michael Abrams

I am pleased to announce the December 2013 History Major of the Month: Michael Abrams ('15). To learn more about Michael and his interest in history check out the interview below (continued after the link):

Q: Why did you decide to become a history major?

Michael Abrams: History was my favorite subject in school starting around the 6th grade when we learned about ancient and classical history and mythology in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, etc. I'd always been fascinated by mythology and when we learned those stories in conjunction with the history of where they came from, I fell in love. By the time I was taking AP U.S. history and AP European history I knew that I wanted to take more classes like those in college. My brother and mother were big influences too. They were both history majors in college and we've had many history conversations that helped spark and fuel my interest.

Q: What was your favorite history class?

MA: Thus far, my favorite history class has been World History with Professor Sreenivasan. It included everything I love about history: incredible stories (Professor Sreenivasan would start each lecture with an anecdote from the time/place he would be discussing), long-term trends, and connections to today. It showed me the breadth of human history, how we are the latest segment of an incredible timeline stretching far back from us. This newfound perspective deeply affected my views on the world and how connected we all are.

Q: What history area of specialization are you most interested in (for example, 20th century US history, the French Revolution, etc.) and why?

MA: I always have trouble answering this question as my favorite really is world history, because of the perspective it offers. But there are few time periods that are my favorite to learn about. I find the Thirty Years War to be a fascinating, albeit tragic, episode from European history. I also really enjoy Native American history and looking for intersectionality in history. For example, how Indian Removal in the 19th century involved issues of race, political membership (who counts as "American") and economics. I think these connections are both very interesting and helpful to informing our understanding of our history and how our past thinking still influences us today.

Q: What advice would you give to a Freshman history major about the discipline?

MA: Definitely take World History. Besides the merits of it I listed above, I think it would be particularly helpful to a Freshman history major because it is an excellent survey course. It'll help you figure out what areas of history you're most interested in, or if you're like me, that you love examining history from a macro level. I'd also suggest visiting your history professors and faculty adviser during their office hours. It is a great way to build relationships with your professors, enrich your understanding of the material, and receive guidance on how to proceed in your major.

Q: How do you plan on using your history major after graduation? What skills has your history education instilled in you?

MA: I plan on attending law school, where my studies in legal history will definitely come in handy. My history education has taught me to think more critically, apply quantitative analysis to historical data, and has improved my research abilities. I find the historical perspective to be a heartening way to confront our collective problems, as it shows how contemporary issues are the result of trends and forces we can understand and alter. I also hope to write combination historical fiction/academic history books. I think this format can very effectively convey the captivating drama of history to the public and by making it as accurate as possible and including an academic account of the events, raise awareness about a lot of history.

Congrats to Michael on this richly deserved award!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Brandeis History Major of the Month: November 2013 - Omri Nimni

Each month the Brandeis history department will highlight the contributions of an outstanding undergraduate history major by naming her/him the Brandeis History Major of the Month. This month Omri Nimni, a senior and history UDR, has been chosen for his contributions as a UDR and his archaeological work in Israel over the summer. Congratulations Omri!

Q1. Why did you decide to become a history major?

A1. My decision to become a history major was an easy one. As a child the books that I chose to read on a regular basis were more often than not historical fiction. From there as I grew up my love for history grew with me. Throughout high school my favorite subject was always the history course that I was enrolled in. The only problem with high school history was that I could only take one class at a time. Therefore when I got to college all I wanted to do was to take multiple history based courses. That is exactly what I have done here at Brandeis I have taken a total of thirteen history or history based courses here at Brandeis. From the beginning I knew that was passionate about the study of history and therefore becoming a history major was an easy and logical choice for me.

Q2. What has been your favorite history class?

A2. My favorite history class that I took here at Brandeis so far was Roman History to 455 CE taught by Professor Kapelle.

Q3. What history area of specialization are you most interested in (for example, 20th century US history, the French Revolution, etc.) and why?

A3. The area of history that is of the most interest to me right now is Early Medieval British History also known as the Arthurian era. That is the period that I am current in the process of writing my thesis about. The reason as to why I really enjoy this period is because it is a period of great transition. By looking in depth into this time we can see the changes that happened in Britain in post Roman period as well as during the time when Britain began to be taken over by the Saxons and started to be shaped into the England of today.

Q4. What advice would you give to a freshman history major about the discipline?

A4. The advice that I would give to anyone interested in pursuing an education in history is to do two things. First is to take a wide variety of classes within history. This is to expose yourself to many different types of history because if you don’t then it will be difficult to find what you truly love studying. The second thing is to never stop reading. At its most basic level history is the study of the written words of the past so the best way to learn history is to continually read.

Q5. How do you plan on using your history major after graduation? What skills has your history education instilled in you?

A5. After I graduate from Brandeis at the end of this year I plan on pursuing a higher level degree within the field of history. I plan in continuing research in the field of history and eventually teaching history at the University level. The two major skills that I have gained from my study of history are learning how to think and write critically. I have learned how to approach a question and break it down in to sub-questions that I can then answer. Furthermore when it come to writing history has taught me to be able to clearly structure an argument and how to use as much evidence as possible to prove my point. These skills will continue to help me thought my continuing education within history and outside of it as well.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

10 Questions With Abby Cooper

1. How did you first become interested in the history of American slavery?

My path was rather unorthodox. I was a theater major as an undergrad, and after college I took this job in Port Gibson, Mississippi—a place where they were still litigating the right to boycott in the Supreme Court into the 1980s, so the civil rights movement was hardly history. But the community had done a pathbreaking production of Romeo and Juliet in '89 that had opened up a dialogue about race and the town that they wanted to continue. So I was to work with local high school students workshopping their writing and leading acting exercises as a way to create a play reflecting on the community. The first week hit me hard—accents were thick and fast and I would go home and google "indefow" (in the fall) in hopes that I could return the next day and look like I understood what everyone was saying. By week two, I did understand. And we made a play—a really great one, and the talkback afterward was something to behold. It occurred to me that rather than studying theater itself, I was more interested in using theater as a medium. That it could be a force to wrench open larger questions and to help me hear voices I hadn’t heard before. The way these actors talked about religion—or rather, how they narrated experience through a religious lens. That became formative for my interest in religion and history.

2. How did you begin to connect your experience in Mississippi to the history of American slavery?

It was my experience in Mississippi that basically sent me back to school with a series of pressing questions. I taught theater in middle schools while I took classes at Barnard, and then did a Masters in American Religious History at Yale Divinity School. The classes I took—the professors I had—planted the seeds that really made me addicted to pursuing these questions of slavery, religion, modernity, and who gets to speak for what we study. Through the research (for my dissertation work on slave refugee camps in the Civil War), what drove me—it wasn't just the puzzle of: how do you square American freedom and democracy with empire and bondage?—but it was the voices of slaves, especially in interviews, that kept me hooked. That resonated loudly enough to motivate me to sift through the drier materials of state bureaucracy to make connections and form contexts. In interviews with former slaves, there's a cultural cadence that political narratives usually miss or misrepresent. Black southerners had ways of explaining local history that carried important explanatory power that, despite a generation of from-the-bottom-up social history, is still largely peripheral to the national story. There's always the perennial challenge of how do you uncover historically ignored cultures and subcultures. And so I stand in the tradition of the recoverers. Twelve teenagers in Mississippi may not be directly responsible for my dissertation—their impact is greater than that really, a less professional impact—, but they sparked in me a habit of mind that welcomes surprises. They definitely compelled me to take religion seriously in all its complexity.

3. You are currently teaching a course called “The Secret Lives of Slaves.” What is your course about?

There is a secret life of American slaves, it’s not easy to detect, but we’re going to try. There are fragments of slave voices we look at and listen to in class. What do we make of them? How do we get at this question of 19th century modern history that favors texts over other sources? You want to get at marginalized voices and in the study of slavery, many scholars would argue that we have hit a wall. That there was no way to resurrect these voices except through imagination. But I believe there are fragments worth finding. And historically informed imagination is what can connect the evidence. There are certain technologies that, for all their faults, give us new tools to find and combine qualitative data. You can see speech patterns, you can map migration patterns. At the very least they give us an important visual that can accompany other sources. At best it can totally change the way we think of slavery and the Civil War. We can learn about maroon communities and discern how they imagined a lived emancipation would play out. We can learn about black identity before they were defined by the Union army. How do we dig our trenches through source bases? I think there are productive ways to workshop these sources collaboratively. The idea of the class is to try.

4. What do you hope to impart to undergraduates?

The course allows me to expose students to the sources that have most influenced me, exploring textual and non-textual sources like sounds, images, artifacts, and "big question" readings linking slavery to questions of capitalism and economic development. The idea behind the class is to seek to reframe our historical understandings to give primacy to slaves' view and to challenge existing categories.

5. There have been a number of critically acclaimed films about slavery in the last few years including Django Unchained and the forthcoming 12 Years a Slave. What do those films miss about slavery?

On the occasions when I get to weigh in on this, I always feel tremendously privileged to be asked and simultaneously want to alert the person asking—You know I'm a historian, so there's only one way this can go. And then proceed to either correct the anachronisms or critique the melodrama, but what a killjoy. A filmmaker's job isn't history. It's creating a world of the film and striking a language that feels just foreign enough to be historical-ish—to have a mystique that lures us in, makes us curious— but usually not from actual archives because the language might alienate a modern audience and slave dialect is so politically loaded. I grapple with this constantly. My work is geared toward collecting and bringing to life fragments of everyday slave refugee life and then bringing them into the context of the world where small acts could have revolutionary consequences. Maybe some days I might fear the melodramatic image of films being far more indelible for my students than the rigorous analysis of the best monographs, but I should also recognize that there is something to be said for bringing slaves into the consciousness of popular culture.

I did see an interview on CBS that was more-or-less your classic Hollywood promo, and the questions were along the lines of "Ohmigd—playing a slave?!! playing a slaveholder?!!! What was that like?!!" to which there can only be one answer to both those questions—horrible. And so the message I get as a viewer is "phew! so glad I'm on the right side of history!" And there's a danger in smug moral distance.

6. Do they get anything right?

The Solomon Northup movie hasn't come out yet, so I'll hold off on a premature review. But any effort that acquaints public audiences with slaves as multi-dimensional people doing everyday things should get a tip of the hat for making the movie in the first place. American slavery simply isn't something Hollywood has much experience exploring. Tarantino, of course, is in another class altogether—you don't even imagine he has a historian somewhere on staff. Django Unchained, Inglorious Bastards—it's his own genre of fantasy against historical villainy—Nazis and slavery serve his purpose well. Moral complexity would spoil the fun of seeing blood spurt out of the bad guys. It's all about making revenge both lavish and casual, so the jokes land but you still recoil. He said once that if he ever makes a biopic, it will be on John Brown, but it would have to be the last film he makes. Shout out to Quentin—I would please like to be an adviser on that film.

7. What about the slave dialects used in these films?

So I work with slave dialects a lot—obliquely, through transcriptions of interviews but also through the recordings at the Library of Congress. You really have to read/hear them multiple times to get the language down. Dialects mark solidarity between different groups of former slaves, different regional affiliations. And careful listening to dialect can reveal not ignorance but something creative—multiple African languages that evolved into a patois forged specifically to differ from the master's English. When I write and when I am trying to synthesize and choose slave speakers, I give a lot of attention to questions of pitch.

Filmmakers do too but more for the world of the film and what audiences can relate to than to the balance of the documentary record. So I think the story goes that Tarantino passed up British actor Idris Elba for authentically-American-accented Jamie Foxx, a native Texan. Chiwetel Ejiofor, who will be playing Solomon Northup, is British. These might be incidental, but it says something about how filmmakers think of their characters. And it even says something about how modern-day audiences will relate to these characters in their contexts. Solomon Northup was born in New York, not the slave south, his narrative is keen to note. Accents aren't everything, but they are something. We can say that slavery is illegitimate for everyone. But a drama can accentuate the point by creating a tension between coerced servitude and an accent you think is rather distinguished. An accent that immediately plucks a staccato "I don't want to survive, I want to live" with the convincing articulation of a New Yorker. This is very much in the style of the nineteenth-century slave narrative—which convinced its audience of slavery's evil by showing northerners how similar they were to the chattel that harvested their cotton. Which is a wise tactic. Through Northup, we meet others. I use slave narratives in my research because they often give telling and useful details of lives in slavery and passages into freedom, but what a day it will be when Fannie Berry of St. Petersburg, Virginia will be American Protagonist (for more on Fannie Berry, see Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves).

8. What other courses do you plan to teach going forward?

Next semester, I'm teaching a course called American Transformations: Perspectives on United States History and a course called The Social History of the Confederacy.

9. Do you have any hobbies?

Right now, moving my family into the area is my only hobby. My goal is to be non-GPS-dependent by November.

10. Are you prepared for the Massachusetts winter?
Why? Does it get cold here? Should I just get an IV of Airborne inserted now?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Trouble(s) With Dissertations

It seems like most of the chatter among American historians has focused on two debates about the dissertation: should graduate students approach dissertation writing with the intention of having it ready for publication upon completion or is dissertation writing somehow different from book writing? AND should universities automatically embargo dissertations - that is prevent digital copies of them from being made available to scholars - or allow access to them immediately upon completion? I have largely remained on the sidelines for both debates for several reasons. I am in the early stages of my dissertation research and do not have much valuable wisdom to provide on either topic. I am not particularly interested in these kinds of debates and would rather argue about historical content instead of the politics of the history profession. But more than anything else, I have stood aside because I think the answer to both questions seems clear: allow the individual graduate student their own approach to writing their dissertation and choice whether - and for how long - they would like to have their university embargo it.

I am approaching my dissertation as a dissertation and not as a book. My dissertation is on the history of American China Studies and how it shaped and was shaped by mid-20th century American politics. While I feel it has the potential to have mainstream appeal, I am not sure that writing a book for a wide audience is the best way to present the significance of my argument or my skills as a historian to my peers. Fundamentally, I see the dissertation as a certification as to one's qualifications as a historian. Demonstrating these qualifications - ability to use archives, work in foreign languages, articulate a novel and significant argument - does not always make for the most compelling reading even for one's scholarly peers. Yet, I believe that it is important for my project and for my potential employers to demonstrate these skills, although doing so may mean substantial revisions (including cutting, adding, and rewriting chapters) when the dissertation is transformed into a book. The process make take more time, but I am confident in my dissertation prospectus and believe the final product will be well worth the wait.

Though I am not approaching my dissertation as a book, that does not mean every graduate student should avoid writing their dissertation as a book. At the Society of U.S. History blog, Rachel Shelden has given a litany of reasons why writing her dissertation as a book worked for her. Ultimately, each graduate student and their advisors and mentors must choose their own path. There is no "right" answer.

I feel similarly about embargoing dissertations; each student should be allowed to choose whether or not her dissertation will be embargoed by her university and for how long. Debate over embargoing dissertations was brought to the fore by an American Historical Association statement in June urging universities to embargo all student dissertations. This attracted criticisms from many historians who saw the announcement as a foolhardy commitment to the dying medium of print monographs and doing a disservice to young scholars and the profession as a whole by keeping the innovative work of young scholars out of the hands of their peers. Further arguments for the embargo have been forwarded since the AHA's initial announcement, most eloquently by former AHA President Bill Cronin. I understand this puts a lot of stress on university administrators and library personnel who have to process these requests. I understand that it is easier to approach embargoing with an all or nothing mentality. But in the end, the dissertation is the intellectual property of the graduate student who researched and wrote it and they should be allowed to restrict or provide access to it as they see fit.

There are some obvious pitfalls to this case-by-case approach. What if a graduate student forgoes embargoing her dissertation and it is never published as a result? What if a young author's work is preempted while her dissertation is embargoed? Shouldn't the university have some control over the dissertation seeing as they provided at least some of the financial and material support necessary for its completion? Though these issues may seem significant - and indeed many are - the fundamental point remains that neither the AHA nor the university should be compelling graduate students to either embargo or not embargo their dissertations. The choice should remain their's and their's alone. Historians differ in how they want their work to reach their target audience. Some may want their dissertation to be published as a book, others may not want an academic career and therefore do not see the need to revise their dissertation and make it a book. All of these approaches are valid and the university should be compelled to respect all of them, even if they're inconvenient.

To me, both of these controversies point to the continued employment crisis facing young historians. With their traditional means of ideological dissemination (the print book) and their workspace (the university) contracting, even as the number of graduate students continues to grow, the uncertainty facing young scholars adds urgency to debates that to outsiders may seem like small potatoes. After all, writing dissertations as books and embargoing dissertations are only relevant issues if there continues to be a publishing industry looking to publish those books and universities looking to hire their writers. Despite their seeming insignificance, both debates highlight the one thing the graduate student does control in this unstable professional climate - their own work and ideas. If control over those ideas and their form is taken out of the young scholar's hands, be it by the university or the AHA, then there is nothing left for the young historian or the future of the profession.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Review: "The Wars for Asia, 1911-1949" by S.C.M. Paine

The United States likes to think of itself and its actions as of singular importance to world history. Like its sometimes nemesis China, the United States saw itself as a veritable middle kingdom during the 20th century - winning wars, unilaterally arbitrating world affairs, and dispatching challengers to its hegemony be they friend (like Great Britain) or foe (like the Soviet Union). Nowhere is this exceptionalist narrative more in evidence than when examining American military involvement in Asia during World War II. American military success in the Pacific - at Midway, Guadalcanal, and Iwo Jima - are the building blocks for high school surveys of American history and much of the weight on the twentieth century history shelves at your local brick-and-mortar bookseller. Often forgotten are the many American failures in Asia during World War II in Burma and, on the diplomatic front, in China. Even less remembered are the Asian nations and people who fought not only in World War II, but in the preceding Second Sino-Japanese War and later in the Chinese Civil War.

In her important new book The Wars for Asia, 1911-1949, S.C.M. Paine reconceptualizes World War II in East Asia by putting the major Asian countries - Japan, China (Nationalist and Communist), and the Soviet Union - back in the center of the narrative and placing the war itself in a larger context of East Asian conflict dating back to the collapse of China's Qing Dynasty in 1912. Paine begins by looking at the internal dynamics of the three Asian powers. Japan is portrayed as an expanding power constrained by its limited national resources and galvanized by a powerful military emboldened by a series of victories over the Chinese in 1895 and the Russians in 1905. Unlike Japan, China after 1912 was in disarray. The collapse of the Qing Dynasty led to nearly a decade of civil war as different warlords attempted to expand their spheres of influence and, if possible, unite all of China behind them. Chiang Kai-shek, head of the Guomindang or Nationalist Party, was finally able to unite much of the country in 1926 after the Northern Expedition. But as Paine expertly shows, Chiang's hold on power was always tenuous and led him to prioritize domestic enemies like the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over foreign threats because the Japanese were "a disease of the skin" while the CCP was a "disease of the heart". Russia like China went through many changes between 1911 and 1949, having a communist revolution of her own in 1917. Unlike China however, Russia was able to unify and centralize quickly in time to repulse Japanese threats to their sovereignty at the Battle of Khalkhin Gol in 1939.

The rest of Paine's book is devoted to examining how these three powers struggled to dominate East Asia. She does this by viewing the many internal rebellions and local wars as a series of interrelated, nested conflicts for ideological and geopolitical supremacy. In particular, she highlights the short term operational success - battles won - by the Japanese in contrast to the long-term strategy of the Nationalists to "trade space for time." The Nationalists, for Paine, were not inept as has been portrayed by Barbara Tuchman and others, but instead knew they could not win a direct engagement with the Japanese in the late 1930s because of their disunity and under-equipped military. Chiang, having studied in Japan and knowing Japanese manpower and resource limitations, planned to wait out Japanese offensives and hope for foreign aid to drag the Japanese into a long and costly occupation. In Paine's estimation, this strategy was successful and, in more abstract terms, demonstrates the importance of long term strategy compared to operational victories.

Paine's emphasis on traditional aspects of military history - operations and strategy in particular - is also a significant shortcoming of The Wars for Asia. She laments in her acknowledgements that, "history departments across the United States virtually without exception have marginalized the study of war" despite its significance in avoiding future "foreign policy blunders in wars fought by others" (xi-xii). Yet, Paine's isolation of military operations and strategy from the realms of Asian cultures, societies, and ideas could act as a case study of why military history has become marginalized in academe. Furthermore, her study focuses overwhelmingly on military elites at the expense of any systematic examination of common Japanese, Chinese, and Russian soldiers.

The result of Paine's narrow focus on military operations and strategy is that her narrative fails to flout convention in the ways she intends. Yes, it is significant that she largely cuts the United States out of the story and it is important the she looks at the period between 1911 and 1949 as a period of continuous warfare instead of artificially segmented into separate conflicts. The actual storytelling however, because it is so concerned with specific battles and the grand strategies of leading men, is not dissimilar from what is found in textbooks on modern Asian history or in the Cambridge History of China.

One of the highlights of the book is its incredible archival research. Paine spent years learning Japanese, Chinese, and Russian and searching through Japanese, Taiwanese, and Russian archives to craft The Wars for Asia. Her emphasis on using native sources should act as a model for other military historians who study wars in East Asia. Unfortunately, her research has one glaring flaw: the absence of any archival research conducted in the People's Republic of China (PRC). While her book is not blatantly pro-Nationalist, the lack of engagement with PRC sources may explain why they are a secondary player in her narrative. For Paine, the CCP won the Chinese Civil War because of the destruction of the Japanese Ichigo Offensive and growing popular disenchantment among Chinese youth with Nationalist rule after decades of warfare (223-224). The CCP didn't so much win the Chinese Civil War as the Nationalists lost it. Perhaps looking through PRC archives would have painted a different story of an active CCP who won a series of military victories in North China because of superior strategy and troop morale instead of the inevitability of Nationalist failure.

Despite my criticisms of The Wars for Asia, I think it is an important book and a vast improvement over the military histories that preceded it. Paine, rightly, brings the focus of these wars back to the Asian nations that fought them. She also marshals significant archival evidence to support her shift away from the United States and to China, Japan, and Russia. Unfortunately, her larger mission to revitalize military history will continue to remain elusive until military historians begin to engage with literature from other history subfields. While it is undoubtedly true that in early 20th century East Asian "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun," greater emphasis needs to be put on why military power was so important during this era and how (if?) a total focus on military strength was transcended in the second half of the 20th century. Doing so will involve closer collaboration between historians of Asian cultures, societies, and ideas and military historians like Paine.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Protest Music as a Teaching Tool or, All is Not Lost After "Accidental Racist"

It has been a rough week for historians who love music. The popularity of the Brad Paisley/LL Cool J collaboration "Accidental Racist" - aside from showing the continued significance of David Blight's work - illustrates the ways music can be manipulated to cover social ills. For those lucky few who have not heard "Accidental Racist", the song features Brad Paisley as a proud Southerner who wears a Confederate flag t-shirt as a "proud rebel son" and "a Skynard fan" singing to an African-American baristo (voiced by LL Cool J) about why his glorification of his white, southern roots should not be confused with support for slavery or racism. Surprisingly, the baristo does not respond by spitting in Paisley's coffee or splashing it in his face, but with an impassioned defense of African-American inner city culture ("Just because my pants are saggin' doesn't mean I'm up to no good") and solidarity that both sides are merely "misunderstood." The song ends with some unfortunate lyrics ("If you don't judge my gold chains/I'll forget the iron chains [of slavery]") and presumably a postracial South.

Having read Blight's brilliant Race and Reunion the lyric "Can't rewrite history baby" rapped by Cool J is especially troubling. In the context of the song, Cool J is insinuating that this generation's white Southerners cannot be held accountable for the indiscretions of their forefathers. Interestingly, it raises the question of how post-Reconstruction Southern history has been rewritten to minimize Southern responsibility for slavery. All the typical tropes of this revisionist Southern history appear in "Accidental Racist". Paisley claims he is the "son of the new south", a South untainted by the legacy of slavery. He also dumps on Reconstruction for not fully rebuilding the South ("They called it Reconstruction, fixed the buildings, dried a few tears/We're still sifting through the rubble after one-hundred and fifty years") and pays his respects to Robert E. Lee ("RIP Robert E. Lee"). "Accidental Racist" is the perfect case study for how - as Blight has demonstrated - Southern reunion could only come through forgetting race and the bloodshed of the Civil War, not coming to terms with the horrors of black slavery and postwar segregation.

On a cheerier note, "Accidental Racist" did make me think about how effective music can be as a teaching tool. Like poetry, lyrics often condense complicated political messages into a few, easily understandable lines. Also, using non-traditional teaching tools like music can shake up the routine of class and allow students to see the material in a new way. Here are a few under appreciated protest music gems that I think would be particularly useful in the classroom.

Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers ~ "It Isn't Nice"

Dane, who still makes music, joined with the Chambers Brothers to make this classic song attacking liberal complaints that protest - nonviolent resistance in particular - was upsetting or inconvenient. This song documents that it isn't always "nice" to protest systematic oppression, but, in the climate of racial injustice Dane was commenting upon, it is often necessary.

Kinky Friedman ~ "We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You"

Friedman is a country music icon and staple of the vibrant Austin music scene. Blending country with lyrics from his Jewish background, he created protests songs that made him sometimes sound like a Southern Dylan. "We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You" is Friedman at his best. Friedman tells two stories of how he is refused service at a restaurant (because of his race, ethnicity, or political beliefs) and then at a local synagogue because of his politics. Taking the logic of denial of service a step farther, Friedman argues that if he can be refused service at a restaurant or religious establishment, he can deny the government military service as well. Friedman's defense of the refusal to go to Vietnam ("Let Saigons be bygones") puts in sharp relief the hypocrisy faced by minorities who were denied rights in the US, but were expected to embrace the obligation of military service.

Dave van Ronk ~ "Luang Prabang"

"Luang Prabang" is a terrifying song. With the same sarcasm and nihilism brilliantly depicted on screen by movies like "The Deer Hunter" and "Apocalypse Now", van Ronk tells America to "mourn your dead land of the free" and that "every corpse is a patriot" when telling the story of a "ballless wonder" castrated in Vietnam. Though it may be too violent for some students, van Ronk pulls no punches when explaining the horrors and violence of the Vietnam War.

Daniel, Fred, and Julie ~ "Halleluja I'm a Bum"

This is a contemporary cover of an IWW protest song. It satirizes the relationship between management and workers as well as the Presbyterian hymn "Revive Us" which is an exhortation of the restorative powers of work. Furthermore, it shows that bumming was preferable to many able bodied workers because of the horrible conditions suffered by American labor during the early 20th century.

Kris Kristofferson ~ "The Law is for the Protection of the People"

Kristofferson is an underrated political commentator. Perhaps it is because of his relationship with the flag-waving Johnny Cash or his movie star status, but "The Law is for the Protection of the People" sees Kristofferson mustering his considerable lyrical might in criticizing police violence against "hairy-headed hippies". Like other protest singers including Phil Ochs, Kristofferson reminds his audience that these same police justifications were used "when they nailed the Savior to the cross". In a class environment - where many students may only be familiar with the Jerry Falwell factions of evangelism - Kristofferson's music can be used to illustrate how religious language was frequently employed in political dissent in the 1970s and 1980s.

If anyone uses these songs in class I would be interested to hear about their reception. Please post any suggestions for further listening in the comments section. Also, I hope these songs do a small part to offset the popularity of "Accidental Racist" and show the ways music affirms that important of examining injustice historically instead of seeing history as something to transcend.