Tuesday, November 1, 2011

American Heroes Contd.

In a previous post I mentioned that I found that Americans of the civil war generation(s) make better, more relatable heroes than those of the Founding generation(s), because they came from a democratic society.  Thinking it over again, I realized that I should perhaps attack the point from another angle.

The Americans of the Founding generation created something new.  They did not know what they were creating -- Providence (as they themselves might say) had it's own ideas about the future shape of the Republic.  But they were creating a new nation and laying out it's principles for the first time.  They were not burdened with a previous constitution or government -- the Articles of Confederation were cast aside after less than a decade in force.  Once British dominion was overthrown, all cards were on the table.

Perhaps this is why their debates can have such an abstract, philosophical quality to them -- things were newer then, and much of what Jefferson or Hamilton thought about what made a republic work was so much theory.  There was no roadmap to creating a republic out of a formerly subject nation.

This is radically different from our situation in the present day.  We have over 200 years of laws, legal precedent and custom to deal with.  Our constitution is older than that of any other major nation, and many provisions, such as the Senate and the Electoral College, started to show their age long ago.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Talking out of my ass, Death Penalty Polling edition

Over at his place Sullivan has a post up about The Demographics of Death Penalty support, as broken down by race and gender.

The thing that interests me is that black American's support for the death penalty hits a low point in the 60s-70s and then increases through the later 70's and 80's, and starts to come down again in the mid-90's.  Just looking at that, I suspect that the pattern roughly follows crime rates.  White support for the death penalty, on the other hand, hasn't decreased commensurate with the falling crime rates of the past decade and a half.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Cocktail For Sunday Night

The George Thomas
Old Slow Trot
A Chickamauga on the Rocks

3 parts Bourbon (I use 101 proof)
1 part Creme de Peche ( I use GS Massenez)
1 dash bitters (Aromatic lime bitters works best, but Peychaud's will work, I suspect orange bitters would work as well)

Combine ingredients over ice in an old fashioned glass and stir.

This drink is named after General George 'Pap' Thomas, the Virginia-born Union general and 'the Rock of Chickamauga' (hence the alternate name for the drink). I wanted a drink that felt both 'western' and 'southern' hence the bourbon on the one hand and the peach liqueur on the other.

Like it's namesake, it's unassuming and not flashy, but packs quite a wallop when it hits you.

The drink is essentially a 'fancy' cocktail with the curacao replaced with creme de peche. The recipe would work with another whiskey (such as Rye) or Brandy as well.

I'm still tinkering with the recipe -- if you want to 'dry out' the drink, make the ratio of whiskey to Creme de Peche 4/1 rather than 3/1.  This is particularly helpful when using Peychauds -- the lime bitters 'lightens' the flavor and the drink can seem rather thick and sweet if Peychaud's are used in the 3/1 ratio.

If making the drink for multiple people I suspect the best ratio is 24/7 whiskey to creme de peche.  This is impractical in smaller quantities, however.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

It's not where you're going that matters...

My interlocutor RMB and I are both fond of books many people seem to find dull.  Some of them, like Middlemarch, are classics that people don't give a fair shake (perhaps because they're already expecting a boring novel).  Others, like O'Brian's Aubriad and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, are genre classics that many fans of the same genres tell me are too dull to read.  They loved the movies, though.

And I have to say that I can see where they are coming from.  Neither series of novels is in a hurry to get to the action, and the authors of both seem to think that an anticlimax is the best kind of ending (I happen to agree, but that's another post).  But I'd like to focus on one 'boring' feature of both series that I think is actually a great virtue: the amount of narrative space devoted to traveling.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Truth is Not Hidden

In one sense, the battle against 'alternative explanations' for the civil war (ie, those other than slavery) is a battle against belief in hidden truths.

The fact that secession (the more proximate cause of the war) is about slavery is obvious.  Alexander Stephens called Slavery (and racial inequality) the 'cornerstone' of the confederacy.  The Secession ordinances of just about every confederate state cite their desire to protect slavery.  Wartime southern propaganda is redolent with mentions of 'abolition hordes.'

In the North things are admittedly less simple -- the same nation that went marching to war singing 'John Brown's Body' was deeply uncomfortable with emancipating slaves (at first).  Yet just because the civil war did not start as a war for abolition does not mean it wasn't a war against slavery.  To use the terms of the time, it was a war against slave power and the rebellion that power had spawned, whether or not it involved immediate abolition.

These things are obvious.  The effects of the war are even more obvious.  And I think that's one reason why people resist saying that 'slavery* caused the civil war.'  It's obvious.  And many people, particularly intelligent people, resist obvious truths.

I can think of two reasons for this.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

American Heroes

I just finished Grant's memoirs.  They are extraordinary, and show an extraordinary mind.  They've made me think quite a bit about Grant, and about American heroes in general.

I should preface this by saying that I have not read a good biography of Grant.  I know only what I've read in histories of the Civil War and from his own words.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has talked about Grant as a great American hero -- his name is Ulysses, and his initials are US.  He's a loving father and husband, functional alcoholic, gifted writer, brilliant general and a failure at everything he tried (save soldiering) until he was nearly 40.  He starts the war in a slave-owning family and ends it as a supporter of black solidiers, and as president does more for civil rights than anyone until LBJ some 80 years later.  Later, he writes his first and only book while dying of throat cancer, just so his family has enough money to live on when he's gone.  They become one of the greatest American bestsellers up to that date, are live on as some of the greatest military memoirs ever.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Military History is Worth Studying, Jim McPherson edition

Recently I was flipping through James McPherson's (of Battle Cry of Freedom fame) Drawn By the Sword, a collection of essays on the Civil War.

They run the normal gamut -- what caused the war, how it was fought, why we remember it, etc.  What really jumped out at me, though, was his discussion of why the North Won/Why the South lost.

He contrasts intrinsic explanations for Southern Defeat, which focus on Confederate weaknesses -- the South's relative lack of industry, it's disunity, it's poor leadership -- with extrinsic explanations of Southern defeat, which include Union Strength -- Union Strategic superiority, Lincoln's Leadership, Northern Industry, Northern manpower etc.  Ultimately, though, he finds that even the more convincing explanations -- Lincoln's Leadership, Union Material superiority, whatever -- are necessary but not sufficient conditions for Union victory.

As he goes on to say, the sufficient condition for Union victory is battlefield success.  Lincoln, a good plan, strong industry and superior manpower were all necessary, but in the end it really did come down to what happened at Gettysburg, or Chattanooga or outside Atlanta.

This is a point that he made implicitly in Battle Cry of Freedom by drawing our attention to these battles as pivotal points in the war.  Here he makes the point explicit -- victory hinged on the outcome of batttles, particularly several decisive ones.

This makes the study of those battles not just a fun exercise for hobbyists, but a crucial part of understanding the war.  This does not mean that we must study these battles like hobbyists are wont to -- Chancellorsville is not simply a story of Lee and Jackson's geniuses but a very complicated tale of miscommunications, mutual mistakes and bad intelligence.  Battles cannot be reduced to generalship, but so much really did hang on how Meade deployed his reserves at Gettysburg, or Thomas holding the line at Chickamauga.

Perhaps the general public does not need to hear this.  But from my limited exposure to academic historians, there are quite a few in the Academy that do.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Local Stuff

I live in Annapolis, Maryland.  If you live in the DC area, you've probably taken a day trip there, gotten something to eat, walked around town and then gotten ice cream* and gone out for drinks**.  At the conclusion of the day you probably said 'hey, that's a really cute town.  We should go there again.'  And hey, I'm not going to argue.

Needless to say, Annapolis is a tad more complicated for those of us who live here.  Rather than talk you ear off about local politics I'm going to mention one specific problem that's been bugging me for a while:

That's former chief justice Roger Brooke Taney, author of the Dred Scott decision, sitting right in front of the statehouse, glowering over the city.  Obviously, this is a tad troubling -- it's not really kosher to have a man who said that black people were not American citizens (using the most tortured legal reasoning to do so) immortalized in bronze in front of your statehouse.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sometimes the Bigots aren't wrong

But we can't admit it.

I don't mean about their bigotries, but their predictions.  Bigots will often warn that tolerance (or rights) extended to a marginilized group in one area or in one respect will lead to tolerance (or rights) being extended to them in all respects.  The advocates of tolerance will say no, that's not true.  'We're not trying to intrude on people's private beliefs, just change the law', is a common thought.  But the bigots are often right on this one.  Equality is all or nothing.

For instance, in this typically brilliant post about the civil war, the estimable Ta-Nehisi Coates quotes James MacPherson's quote of a southern secessionist.
Georgia's commissioner to Virginia dutifully assured his listeners that if Southern states stayed in the Union, "we will have black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything."
He's not wrong.  Lincoln may not have believed in black equality in 1861 or in 1865.  He downright assured people that he wasn't in favor of social equality for blacks, and that freeing the slaves wouldn't bring it about.  But the Georgian was right: in hindsight Lincoln's election was the beginning of the long road toward the US admitting black Americans as equal citizens.  Now we have a black president.

There are a number of reasons why emancipation snowballed into something approaching legal equality* in 150 years.  Social equality still hasn't been achieved, but it is far closer than Lincoln would have dared imagine in 1860.  Listing the reasons this is so would require a history of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Civil rights movement from 1865 through the present. But I think there are two factors in this:

  1. Those who are unequal won't stop short of full equality.  Black Americans weren't going to happily get denied the franchise and submit to terrorism after they were freed.  Even when things were shit in the 1910's Black civil rights advocates didn't stop struggling for recognition as equal citizens.  They won, through years of hard struggle and courage.  For women, it was 50 years between the right to vote and the right to work, again through years of campaigning.
  2. There is no hermetic seal between the law and social mores.  When Loving vs. Virginia was passed, on paper it only changed the law to make interracial marriage legal.  But 40 years later prejudice against interracial relationships is much less dominant (if still widespread), and in most circles it cannot be expressed openly.  Condemning something that is fully sanctioned by the law is less comfortable than condemning something that's illegal.
All this leads up to my more contemporary point:  the anti-gay bigots aren't wrong about  the consequences of gay rights victories.  Moderate gay rights advocates once said that we're not forcing anyone to change their minds, that we're not forcing homosexuality to be socially acceptable.  These days gay rights advocates say this a bit less, but the idea is still there: you and your children can keep your bigotries, we're just after legal equality.

This isn't true, at least not entirely.  True equality doesn't stop at the courthouse.  As long society condemns homosexuality (or transgender people) and makes gays feel like outcasts, young gay/transgender people are going to keep killing themselves.

So no one is going to suggest putting conservative Catholics and Evagelicals into gulags or having bonfires where we tear out the offending passages of Leviticus and Romans and burn them.  But advocates of equality DO want to change society.  We DO want to make being gay or transgender socially accepted, and to make bigotry against these people as socially unacceptable as racism is (or should be).  And the bigots know that, and we know that.

But we can't admit it.  Because there are people who are uncomfortable with legal inequality, but are equally uncomfortable with the full force of social condemnation coming down on someone else's religious beliefs.  And we need those people.  So we won't tell them that we want to make the world outright hostile to homophobia.

And I'm okay with this.  Maybe it was all those years of being taught by Straussians in Undergrad, but sometimes lies are necessary.  That's politics.

*Here I'm talking about legal equality (at least in theory) and a degree of social equality that would have been hard to imagine in 1860 or even 1960.  I'm not trying to minimize how many inequalities remain, just draw out how much more radical the consequences of Lincoln's election were than he admitted or realized.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Greatness of Patrick O'Brian

Note - Spoilers ahead.

Years ago, when I was a little kid, my father read CS Forester's Hornblower novels, and liked them quite a bit.  He did this for some time, and got through the whole series.  Eventually I asked him what the Hornblower book he was reading was like, and he told me that this wasn't a Hornblower book, this was another book about a different Royal Navy captain, and it was better.  This was my introduction to Patrick O'Brian.

Beginning towards the end of high school and going past the end of college I read all 20 complete novels of the Aubrey-Maturin series, or the 'Aubriad'* (the fan name that I prefer).  And I adored them.  Being bookish and feeling none too smooth with the ladies I loved Stephen. I suppose it's similar to the way many smart high school girls love Elizabeth Bennet.  And I loved the long, meandering internal monologues, the slow subplots of Stephen and Jack's domestic lives, and the nautical minutia.

But (along with a bunch of book critics) I'd say that these are the best historical novels I've ever read.  More than that, I'd say that taken as a whole they're some of the best literature I've ever read, and that includes all those more famous dead folks I read while in college.  Why?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Late Father's Day post

I owe a lot to my father.  I've mentioned him before and will mention him again.  Both my parents were great, I'll say that out front.  I was a lucky kid, parent-wise, even if my parents weren't always lucky parents, kid-wise (yes mom and dad, I now know what a huge wiseass I was from the ages of 7 to 19).  Both of them managed to make me feel accepted without being sheltered or coddled, so I didn't end up like the kids in this Atlantic article nor like some of my friends who had more demanding parents -- more driven than I, perhaps, but a good deal less happy.

But beyond this, my father in particular showed me an example of who I could be as a man -- he was patient, gentle and kind to a fault.  'Nurturing' is one of the first words I would use to describe him, so the traditional depiction of fathers as impersonal disciplinarians always puzzled me, to say nothing of the depiction of them as bumbling incompetents.

The effected not just my view of father but of men in general -- why does a man have to be aggressive or domineering?  Why are those things 'manly'?  My father was my model for manhood, and he was none of those things.  Now I am less patient and more inclined to dominate a conversation than my father, (I can only hope I'll get better with age) but he did set me down a path of wanting to define for myself what being a man meant.  I don't know where this path ends (does being a man mean anything at all, beyond what we decide it means for ourselves?  I doubt it), but I'll always be thankful that he showed me the way.  In the end the proof is in the pudding though -- if at the end of the day I'm half as kind and patient as he is, I'll be happy.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Greatness of "Die Hard"

I'm still working on the blog post I'd hoped to write this week.  In the meantime, here is some pop-culture thoughts.

I saw "Die Hard" for probably the 10th time.  It's still awesome.  It succeeds at what it sets out to do -- tell a thrilling story well -- better than most movies, including most prestige pictures that end up vying for Oscars.  Having seen "the King's Speech" recently, I'd say they're about on par -- neither is life-changing or philosophical or whatever, but they're well done movies.

Here's some random thoughts about what makes Die Hard so great.

On a pretentious note it adheres to the 3 classical unities of drama:

1) Unity of Action - On watching it again it was impressive how organically the movie flows.  Every action sequence make sense in the context of Alan Rickman's takeover of the office tower -- many of them are Rickman's thugs chasing Bruce Willis around, others are the result of Willis and Rickman matching wits (about the detonators in the 3rd quarter of the movie, for instance).  Action sequences have not been added willy-nilly and some classic sequences (notably car chases) are absent entirely because they wouldn't fit.  The result is that the movie builds extremely well.

2) Unity of Place - the office tower is a great setting.  Rather than leaving it we're taken over the same ground multiple times to give us an idea of how frantic Willis is and how claustrophobic and crazy the situation is.  This restricts the kinds of scenes that can take place, but they give each scene a very strong sense of context -- you feel like you could map out the office tower, from the lobby to the maintenance area with the pin-up to the roof.

3) Unity of Time - the movie almost unfolds in real time.  As near as I can tell it takes place over 4-5 hours, so very little time is compressed.  This lets the events unfold in detail and seem more real.

Beyond the unnecessary shout-out to Aristotle's Poetics, the above points get at the movie's core strength -- it is tight.  Everything about it is tight.  That is to say, nothing is extraneous, every piece fulfills some part of it's central purpose.  The characters are fleshed out enough for us to care about them, which is aided by the solid acting by the whole cast.  The writing is often funny, sometimes touching, and always pulls you in -- there's no backstory or subplots patronizingly thrown in to appeal to demographic x or y to take away screen time that would be better spent blowing shit up.

At the risk of being curmudgeonly, action movies would do well to stick closer to the Die Hard formula rather than spastic crap like the original Fast and Furious movie or plodding nonsense from Michael Bay.  Action movies are about action -- things that get audiences blood pumping, make them cackle a tad sadistically, etc. These are simple things.  Adding on other stuff, Michael Bay style - an extended romance or a complicated mythos -- doesn't turn your action movie into an epic, it just makes it boring.  For myself, I can always watch Die Hard an 11th time next time I want to turn my brain off and enjoy myself.  Yippe ki yay.

Monday, June 13, 2011

7 Country(ish) albums for people that don't like Country

Country is cool these days.  First Johnny Cash came back, then Loretta Lynn, then Old Crow Medicine Show and the Drive By Truckers came along with Old Timey and southern rock albums about the contemporary South that produced a hit or two.  Still, I imagine that the twanging might turn some people off, and I will confess that I myself am still flirting with Nashville rather than embracing it, so here are 7 albums that got me closer to country music.

Artist: Earth,
Album: Hex or, Printing in the Infernal Method

Recommended for: metalheads, post rockers
Yeah, it's a metal album, but a metal album that sounds like the soundtrack to some creepy contemporary western.  Particularly, the guitar distortion has a distinctly non-metal, western twang.  It's going to be in my CD player if I ever drive across the high plains.

After this album Earth's other records have pretty much followed it's style, so if you like this you'd probably like The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull and Hibernaculum.

Artist: Songs Ohia
Album: Magnolia Electric Company
Recommended for: Indie rockers
The recommendation is somewhat superfluous, since this album was a pretty big deal back in 2003.  7 years later, it's still awesome -- on the balance I'd call it southern rock, but it varies between ballads like "The Old Black Hen" and almost metal riffs like the ones in "John Henry Split My Heart."  I can't listen to this album in the daytime for some reason -- generally it's in the CD player when driving country roads late at night.

This album was the last recorded as Songs Ohia -- but the same group continues to release albums as Magnolia Electric Company. Unsurprisingly, they sound rather like this one. 

Artist: Slim Cessna's Auto Club
Album: Cypher
Recommended for: fans of punk rock, goddamn near everyone
This is the best album I've heard that's come out in the past 10 years.  No joke.  There's only 1 track that's merely mediocre, everything else ranges from very good to excellent.  The songs range from shape-note like spirituals (the "Power of Braces" quartet of songs that frame the album) to raucous rock songs like the one above to "Red Pirate of the Prairie's" hard rock (it's probably the most metal song ever to feature a banjo) to noise rock ("Jesus is in My Body - My Body has Let Me Down," which sounds like Swans).  The whole thing is raucous, danceable and fun, if often creepy.  Also, the band probably puts on the best live show of any band currently touring the US.

Cypher is my all-time favorite, but Slim Cessna's albums are all worth checking out, though the older ones like Always Say Please and Thank You are a bit more country. More like Cypher are The Bloudy Tennet Truth Peace, which includes the band's all-time theme song, "This is How We Do Things in the Country" and their latest album, Unentitled.

Artist: 16 Horsepower
Album: Sackcloth 'n Ashes
Recommended for: Goths, anyone else who likes Joy Division
Unlike Magnolia Electric Co. or Cypher, this isn't a particularly diverse album, sound wise.  The album is very much like Black Soul Choir, above -- dark, depressing stuff, with great, catchy melodies and some awesome instrumentation.  In particular, it has awesome concertina parts on songs like "American Wheeze."  16 Horsepower came from the same Denver-based Gothic Americana scene as Slim Cessna's Auto Club, and the frontman, David Eugene Edwards, released awesome albums with both 16 Horsepower and his subsequent act, Woven Hand, though never one quite like this.  Particularly notable are his covers, particularly those of "Bad Moon Rising" and "Day of the Lord's" by Joy Division.  I could easily make this whole list David Eugene Edwards albums, but that will have to wait for an upcoming introductory post to Gothic Americana.

Artist: Drive By Truckers
Album: Brighter than Creation's Dark
Recommended for: Alt-rock fans, open-minded hip hop fans
The hip hop recommendation is admittedly weird, since musically this album has nothing in common with hip-hop, musically speaking.  But unlike the albums listed above, which are an excelletn but mostly humorless lot (except for Slim Cessna's), Brigther than Creation's Dark has a lot of the lyrical playfulness and humor that old-school country has, which isn't unlike what you'd find in Hip-Hop.  They can just as easily turn their lyrics to more serious ends, singing about issues like the Iraq War and Methamphetamine abuse disproportionately effect rural America (not unlike the soical consciousness of some rap acts).  So maybe it's a stretch, but I think there's something to the comparison.

The Drive-By-Truckers are pretty consistently good, but Decoration Day is another great album.

Artist: Old Crow Medicine Show
Album: Big Iron World

Recommended for: Singer/songwriter fans, mainstream rock fans
If you haven't heard OCMS's 2004 song "Wagon Wheel" you may have spent the past 5 years living under a rock.  But the band is no one-hit wonder -- on their follow up album the two best songs are probably "James River Blues," above (an original composition about the end of the era of the bateau men of Virginia with the coming of the railroad) and "Cocaine Habit" (traditional, maybe one of the oldest songs about coke and how it makes you an asshole).  Probably the best part about their songs are their vocal harmonies (which are de rigeur in bluegrass and often in Old Time Music as well) and the violin part, which is as gorgeous in "James River Blues" as "Wagon Wheel."

Artist: Seldom Scene
Album: Act 1
Recommended for: everyone who doesn't mind banjoes
Now we're in pretty thick.  This is a straight bluegrass album, even more so than Big Iron World is a straight old-time album.  Still, the Seldom Scene don't restrict themselves to the old standards like "Will There Be Any Stars In My Crown" and add in a James Taylor cover and the 70's folk song "City of New Orleans," which they helped make a new Bluegrass standard.  Act 1 as a whole has some of the best vocal harmonies in the genre and some virtuoso banjo and dobro playing.  The songwriting is also quite tight -- unlike some of there other 60's/70's bluegrass contemporaries they don't get stuck on jam band meandering.  Stand out tracks include the two songs mentioned above, the great banjo track "Joshua," and "With Body and Soul."

IF you like this album, The Seldom Scene has been together in various incarnations for 40 years, so there's a lot there.  One of their best is their live album, Live at the Cellar Door, which includes a lot of songs from their early albums and an all-time great cover of "Baby Blue" by Bob Dylan (I'd say it ties the 13th Floor Elevators version).

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Music for Sunday

The rocking opening track from Secret South, probably 16 Horsepower's most mainstream-sounding album.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Light Blogging ahead, and a few stray thoughts.

Many who read this blog no doubt already know, but I will be somewhat indisposed for the next few weeks and so blogging shall be light.  I have an engagement, or more precisely, the consummation of an engagement, to attend west of the Blue Ridge.  It will be followed by a not unrelated vacation across the Atlantic.  Through some strange coincidence, my interlocutor RMB will be similarly indisposed for an identical period of time.

I hope to make a couple more posts on before I'm off, but I did not want so important an event in my life to be passed over entirely, if I may quote myself and speak for another (with her approval):

People will often say that two people were made for each other, or that their relationship was 'meant to be.'  My partner and I don't think that about our relationship or each other.  She and I don't think that God created us specially for one another, or that destiny conspired to bring us together, or that there is only one person in the world that we could be happy with and we were just lucky to find them.  At most we are rather suited to each other in values, temperament and interests.

Nor do we think that love is an uncontrollable passion that we are at the mercy of and utterly dependent upon.  "Being in Love" is not a mysterious state imposed upon us by an outside force that our relationship depends upon.

We do believe that love is a way that we view one another, treat one another and feel towards each other.  The philosopher once said that virtue is a habit.  We think that love, like virtue, is a habit, a habit of orienting our lives toward one another.  Our relationship is a collection of habits -- consideration for each other in our actions, affectionate regard for another in our thoughts, respect for one another in all things. I cannot, and will not ask for more.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

A Partial Defense of Historical Reenactment Pt 3 - Conclusion, Caveats

I wish to conclude this series with a summary and TL/DR version of my previous posts, followed by some caveats.

Previously, I attempted to show that historical reenacting is valuable as a form of crowd-sourcing where historic sites let the public interact with a large number of amateur enthusiasts.  Though many people that come to reenactments as members of the public are history buffs, the sheer amount of nerdy information hording manifested by reenactors is enough to provide a valuable service by introducing people to new bits of information and correcting the misconceptions of hollywood and popular history.  Moreover, reenactors are a valuable source of information about the material culture of the time period that they portray, which can relate to all sorts of aspects of society or economics.  This is both a valuable teaching tool for the public and a potential resource for scholars.  In addition, reenacting is a major motivating force for modern amateur historians, the best of which can make some pretty interesting discoveries.

So there's more to the funny clothes and nerdy obsession with detail than meets the eye.

Caveats below the fold.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Partial Defense of Historical Reenactment Pt 2 - the Value of Minutia

In my previous post I looked at the general role of reenactors as accessible history educators for the public.  In this post I'm going to focus on a particular aspect of history that reenactors excel at -- the details.  Reenactors are second to none at amassing the details of material culture, and though this may seem petty and silly this can actually add quite a bit to historical knowledge, both for the public that reenactors interact with.

To provide background to those of you that do not reenact and do not know reenactors, a well-informed reenactor is an encyclopedia of minutia about the everyday objects of history, or 'material culture'.  How many buttons different Union uniforms had throughout the Civil War.  The construction of medieval shoes and belts.  The armour of late medieval europe, how it was made and sold  (an interest of mine).

These details can be valuable in a number of ways.  Firstly and most abstractly, I find that understanding the esthetics of a historical are an important way that I relate to it (maybe I'm just a visual person, as we used to say in school).  Seeing a person in accurate garb for that period lets me visualize it better, which makes it seem more, I dunno, real to me.  It comes back to the old 'bringing the bast to life' slogan.  Granted, all of this is vague and subjective.

More concretely, everything in history is related, and a good presenter can bring that out when talking to the public.  Medieval people did not wear much black because cloth is very hard to dye black without logwood, which comes from the New World.  Medieval Englishman didn't wear cotton because it had to be imported from the mediterranean and then combed out by hand (since the cotton gin had not been invented).  Union soldiers wore machine-stitched uniforms because the North had an extensive clothing industry that could use the sewing machine effectively, Confederates wore handsewn uniforms because the southern economy wasn't industrialized.  Everything a medieval person owned or wore reflected their social station.  Et cetera.  All these details come back to the bigger questions of society and economics, and telling the public about your funny clothes is a perfect time to explain some of the underlying reasons for fashions and the construction of personal items (if said members of the public have the patience, of course).

Moreover, reenactors are a great motivator for research into material culture, and sometimes a source of new research.  Many books that once would have never received publication outside of an academic setting (books about medieval shoes, for instance) are fairly widely published because of the reenactor market.

Moving away from the specifics of material culture, in certain neglected periods of history, reenactors can do some really great original research and blaze new paths.  To use an example I know of, one English reenactor (David Key) looked at the original household account books and muster rolls of the Wars of the Roses era and found out that a certain type of troops (billmen) were an interpolation by later historians and were not present in any period accounts, which changed a lot of our understanding of the military history of that era.

To conclude this section, then, a lot of the seemingly inconsequential trivia that reenactors obsess over can actually tell us quite a bit about the past, and reenactors themselves are important in discovering, disseminating and consuming this information.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Sitcom Dads or, "Sexism Hurts Everyone, TV Edition"

I hate sitcom dads.  Generally well-meaning but incompetent, they're the less essential half of nearly every couple in a family sitcom.  Growing up with a loving and very competent father, there was something offensively untrue about the bumbling idiocy displayed for 23 minutes at 8pm every weeknight.  I'm not alone either.  Quite a number of my friends have mentioned that their fathers either grumbled about or boycotted portrayals of paternal incompetence, and I've heard older male friends (fathers themselves) complain about them quite a bit.  In contrast, the number of people who will actually say "I love how fathers on TV can't do anything right" is about zero, by my experience.  Which raises the question of why the sitcom dads are such fuck-ups, if no one likes it.

The origins of the doltish pater familis are pretty well known.  Back in the 50's, TV fathers were omniscient and omnibenevolent agents of authority and wisdom for both their children and their child-like TV wives.  Father knew best, etc*.  Then in the 70's Archie Bunker came along and subverted the whole set-up with his bigotry, small-mindedness and general idiocy.  Or so I've been told, I'm no TV historian, and didn't even have TV land growing up.

Then the interesting thing happened.  Somehow, the subversion of TV fatherhood became the norm.  TV dads went from gently chiding their wives for opening their own bank accounts** to nearly blowing their kids' college fund on power tools and beer every other episode. Of the iconic TV dads I can remember from my childhood TV watching, only Cliff Huxtable seemed comfortable or competent raising his offspring.  The others, Homer Simpson, Tim Allen, Peter Griffin, were respectively lazy but well-meaning, bumbling and abusively neglectful.

If one were a Men's rights advocate (MRA) it would be tempting to blame the dominance of incompetent TV dads on feminism, since the shift from father knows best to sheer paternal idiocy happened in the 70's and 80's when feminism was becoming more and more of a cultural force***.  But that seems unlikely -- for one thing, the 90's housewife is just as devoted a wife and mother as her 50's counterpart, by and large, she just also happens to act like a grown-up and often have a career as well.

In fact, in many cases TV parents seem to fall into 1 of 2 general dynamics, that of the 'separate spheres' or what I (and I'm sure someone else coined this phrase before) call the 'incredible shrinking man.'

'Separate Spheres' is the notion that men have their sphere in the outside world, while women have their role within the home and the family.  Women are nurturers who raise the next generation, men actually run the world and only interact with the family as breadwinners or as distant monarchs.  It's an idea that feminists have been scrutinizing for ages, and the idea itself dates back at least to the 19th century.

It also describes a lot of TV families, albeit in a modified version.  The man's sphere is outside the home, so it's okay that he's kind of awkward and incompetent with the kids  - it's cute, in fact, that he so ineptly tries to raise them or to please his wife.  In the end, relating to his family isn't his job, so he can be a success without being much good at it.  Moreover, his self-centredness and incompetence don't make him a less sympathetic character because he can't help it.  He's a man, after all.

Women, in contrast, are expected to be mothers and wives and are still judged as such.  They can be doctors, lawyers and anything else but they become much less sympathetic characters if they're terrible at being moms -- it's funny when Homer uses Lisa as an aid to his football betting, if Marge did it I suspect it would just be disturbing.  In general, the more comic sitcom dads are the more incompetent ones (Homer, Tim Allen) while the more comic sitcom mom (Marge, Malcom's mom) are neurotically, comically competent and dutiful in managing the household.

Generally, the separate spheres dynamic describes more functional sitcom families; the more dysfunctional ones fall into the other dynamic, that of the shrinking man.

The idea behind this is that masculinity is primarily defined negatively.  The most important thing about Being a Man is to not be a woman and not be gay.  Women, contrariwise, are expected to be any number of things -- diligent, loving, maternal, organized, responsible, whatever.  These all become in some sense female traits.  This leaves men with pretty unappealing options if they don't want to be girly -- slovenliness, insensitivity, ignorance, bigotry, childishness and self-centredness all come to mind.  Pretty good description of Peter Griffin, no?

Now the separate spheres model leaves men their status as adult human beings, but as far as family life is concerned the result is the same for both dynamics -- women suffer from incredibly high expectations that they be all but perfect, and men suffer from disregard and comical contempt; their ability to contribute anything to the family beyond a paycheck and misdirected love is effectively discounted.  Everyone loses.

*And that was terrible
**See footnote above
***Also, when all you've got is an anti-feminist hammer, everything looks like a man-hating nail

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


As a friend said, I'm not unhappy to see that Bin Laden is dead.  It's a good thing; for one thing, Lord knows how much damage he could yet do were he still alive and free.  But a SEAL team shooting a mass-murderer is not the same thing as justice.  Justice involves, you know, laws and trials and crap.  We don't generally say 'justice was done' when the police shoot someone that's shooting up a nightclub, we say something like 'we're safer now.'  Which is good, but it's not justice.

What makes the whole Bin Laden's death=justice talking point troubling rather than merely annoying is that we have the opportunity to enact justice for 9-11.  If US officials are to be believed, Khalid Sheik Muhammed was the mastermind of the attack, and we have had him in custody for the better part of a decade.  Trying him according to US law for the murder of nearly 3,000 people would be justice.  Just like trying someone for the murder of 1 person is justice.

Yet when the Obama administration proposed to do just this, to try Khalid Sheik Muhammed, the demagogues flipped out.  Apparently trying a murderer for his crimes isn't justice, it's letting him off easy*.  The American people, by many accounts, flipped out -- gallup polls showed opposition in most trial venues.  So rather than brave the demagogues and the mob Obama caved and agreed to try KSM with the same Kangaroo courts Bush was about to set up.  The demagogues/mob were somewhat mollified. 

Looking at the Bin Laden raid and the reaction from the very people who condemned the KSM trial, apparently a bullet to the head in a firefight is justice and a trial isn't.  I suspect the underlying logic is that since justice is served with a bullet, a trial is merely an indulgence to the accused that terrorists do not deserve.  Bin Laden's death is a good thing for the US and the world.  But the idea that it's the yardstick of justice in our efforts against terrorism is incredibly disturbing

*Someone should have told Himmler and Goebbels, had they known that Nuremburg was getting off easy and more than they deserved then they probably wouldn't have bothered with cyanide.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

On Killing

Here in the country death is close. If they are lucky the old die peacefully in their houses or their children's -- or, if they are not lucky, then in squalid nursing homes in town. They are buried back in the valley in their ancestral church and a banquet is held after the burial. They are hardy spoken of as being dead, and they have a strange immortality, joining the pantheon of those who have gone before, those who remembered the old ways. They have their eternal life in the memory of their families as they decay under the ground.

Their deaths are spoken of in half-whispers at their otherwise loud and bustling memorial meals, and if the passing was particularly hard the women clustered in the kitchen may speak quietly and hold each other while the men sprawl proudly at table. The matter of the person actually being dead isn't much spoken of by the men when the women aren't around, so when they do speak it will be with a studied gruffness that neglects that fact and raises the gone to their timelessness, especially in the eager ears of children listening to the old-timers' tales. The women may grieve and console publically without reproach, but for the men it not so straight-forward.

Then there is the regular killing: chickens are beheaded for Sunday dinner, turkeys and other fowl for special occasions, cattle and pigs slaughtered, groundhogs kept out of the garden with a shot to the head, pets shot after being hit by a car.

Similarly, the killing that hunting necessarily involves is not spoken of. I grew up with the silence: the men left long before I awoke and came back with a dead deer in the back of the truck that evening and I would hold the flashlight while the carcass was cleaned, but when we went back to the house after hanging the deer in the barn we changed out of our clothes in the basement, washed our tools and hands, and didn't speak much of it when we sat down to dinner except to give the basic facts of size and where it was shot.

There was no boasting in the silent company of my uncle and grandfather. After your first deer there were no words of congratulation, just a simple acknowledgment of a clean shot or a many-pointed buck. The killing was not something to be boasted of because it was all understood: the dark, silent hours sitting miserable in the cold, the quickening of one's heartbeat as a deer came into sight, the carefully-placed shot, the struggle in the cold wind to drag the heavy, dead deer down a mountainside in the deepening twilight, the quick, neat work with knife and saw to butcher the animal and hang it. We have all done it. There is nothing to say to one another, no need to complain. And that is what makes hunting acceptable to me: there is no blood-lust, no glorification of a man with a gun killing an animal at a distance. It is done for the pleasure of doing something well, for the love of nature and the woods, to sit all day and truly pay attention to one's surroundings, to have earned the right to fire your gun and feel the satisfaction of having done so.

It is strange to be a woman in all of this. It is something that women do not do. It is cold, miserable, unpleasant work, and there is a distinctly masochistic streak in the uncomplaining suffering, where even suggesting that one is uncomfortable is simply not acceptable. You have to act like you are happy to be out there, to be cold and wet and stiff. And perhaps, after decades of doing it, one does enjoy it, or at least gets to the point where one can ignore it. But I am not surprised that men do not encourage their wives and daughters to go out with them. There is a very old-fashioned air of protecting women from the unpleasantness of hunting in all of this silence: keeping from them the screams of the dying animal, the blood, the staring eyes. I have joined, at least in part, in the solidarity of men - woken up at 4:30 am and stayed long after dark for the messy work of slaughtering. And when we go back to the house and eat the hot food prepared for us I don't speak of it either, and I feel the strange urge to keep all this knowledge close, to protect someone (though I don't know who) from it.

It's a strange, foolish feeling that arises despite all my strong opinions on gender equality, this desire to embrace the freedom of men that comes only at the expensive of women. It makes me long to rejoin my shipmates as Ben, to man a gun in the summer heat uncomplaining, and then come back to camp and enjoy all the silly niceties of women gossiping and giving me cake. It makes me grimace with my own hypocrisy to say it, but under such circumstances the company of women is charming instead of foolish, a relief instead of a burden, because I can stand on the outside of the female company that I have never felt fully part of. But it makes me despise returning to being a woman, and after joining the men and treating a woman as a delicate piece of china to be carefully cared for I have no interest in being treated that way myself.

At the end of the day it is a hollow, dead-end choice, and we all suffer when we are confined by old notions of gender, be we men in our silent prisons who end our lives with a pistol, unable to speak our feelings and find healing, or be we women who through a lifetime of ill-use and neglect accept a life of passivity, self-sacrifice, and negation. It's hard to take off my suspenders and unqueue my hair at the end of the day, but my escapist fantasy of being Ben cannot ring true. If I long to be a man to escape being judged a woman I do neither gender credit. I value patience, reserve, tact, and humility, but men don't have the monopoly on those virtues any more than women have a monopoly on being emotional and short-sighted. It's too easy to let my escapism become the misogyny that I am eager to grow beyond.

Intro #2

Hi, I'm the other half of TestudoMeles, one RMB. Book conservator and binding historian by trade; my hobbies include backpacking, hunting, sailing, reenacting, sewing, calligraphing, lifting weights, singing, farming, commuter bicycling, waiting for the bus, and hanging out with my roommates and partner WAKnight in our tiny apartment.

WAKnight and I have spent years talking to each other about all the things we've been thinking about on long roadtrips, backpacking trips, quiet evenings at home, and so on that we decided to have a blog. And thus we are here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Why We Study History

This blog is going to talk a lot about history.  As a reenactor, freelance student and participant in public discourse, history comes up a lot in my thinking and my speech.  So I might as well start with why I bother with history in the first place.

To start with, more intelligent men than I have touched on the subject.

But here are a few reasons that resonate for me.  The first two are often discussed and are less interesting to me, so I'll dwell on the last.

1) Historical myth is the basis for our popular discourse.  Be it the absolute stupidity and cowardice of appeasement or the waste of the first world war or the tragedy of the civil war, history comes up all the time when we discuss current events or more general values.  Knowing what's a distortion and what's mostly true is useful.

2) "The past is never dead. It's not even past."  Seemingly long-dead institutions and attitudes shape the world around us, understanding them is important to understand the present.

Duh, right?  I don't think the last reason is as often talked about, though.

3) History is the science of the particular.  This both offers positive lessons about the importance of studying specifics and negative lessons about the dangers of universal statements.  This takes a bit more explaining by way of contrast to philosophy.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Nothing makes me question my own rhetorical devices as much as when I see them abusively used against my own opinions.  Probably the worst offender is telepathy, where you tell someone you don't agree with why they believe what they do.  Sometimes it's mere strawmanning, but that's the easy case. Sometimes telepathy is less of an all-out bad faith attack and just an attempt to pigeonhole opponents into your own worldview.

To use an example, this post was inspired by the fact that certain bloggers can't seem to stop making definitive-sound statements about what religious people believe and why they believe it.  After all, there are a few billion of us the world over, so saying that you know why people believe in God and a hundred somewhat related propositions is pretty presumptuous. It doesn't come off well in part because believers (like yours truly) can examine their own reasons for belief, find that they are not the reasons the telepath proffers, and then dismiss the telepath's entire argument.

Disproving someone's else's claims about your inmost thoughts is among the easiest things in the world, up there with offending Bill Donohue and making Rousseau sound ridiculous.  But after you've explained to the someone else in question why you actually believe proposition X, the telepath in question might then claim that you're just in denial about your true reasons. This is mostly an illustration of how useless the whole exchange is.  People believe things for complicated reasons, and people that believe different things than us believe them for reasons that can be hard to understand or to shoehorn into our own worldview.  Rhetorical telepathy is generally a bad idea because mind readers we ain't.

Yet I still intend to get at why people believe things when I write for this blog.  To use a couple of easy examples, Lost Causers are generally attached to a traditional (problematic, to say the least) view of 'the South' rather than to a specific set of historical facts and many climate-change denialists are generally more worried about the political consequences of climate change science than the methodology of the science itself.  They won't say it, but a combination of their other statements, their affiliations etc. makes the underlying cause clear.

But I have to check myself and not get too quick to jump to gun.  If you see any telepathic bullcrap, call me on it, okay?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Hi Everyone.  Welcome to the blog.  This is a joint effort between myself and my real-life partner in crime RMB.  We will probably add other friends occasionally as well.

This was originally conceived of as a way to record and share some ongoing conversations that the two of us have.  Topics of these include the usual blog gamut of religion, history, gender, RPGs, books, etc.  Maybe things will get more focused as we continue.  Or not.