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.