Regions of Mind
Self-assured but self-questioning.
Geitner Simmons is an editorial writer with the Omaha World-Herald.
This weblog expresses his personal views only.
He is also
a husband, a father, a son. And always
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Monday, September 23
Why red-state residents are resentful
Tapped took aim last week at what it termed the “Guilty Coastal Cityslicker Elitist problem.” I’ll cite part of the Tapped post, then offer some reaction:
Sure, Brooks as well some folks on the right and some regional chauvinists get too rhapsodic about red-state values. President Bush has unwisely contributed to the problem, gushing to red-state audiences that they represent a noble “heartland” of higher virtue.
In reality, no one region of the country has a monopoly on virtue. We’re all Americans, and as such we each ought to exist on the same plane of mutual respect. The American Revolution, after all, led to an overthrow of the old colonial system in which a social hierarchy had been rigidly enforced. The promise of the new republic was that each American would be regarded in an egalitarian spirit as fully deserving of respect and the opportunity for economic advancement.
That principle should still hold in the 21st century, despite the frictions between the blue-state and red-state camps.
If it helps, though, I’ll be happy to cite three principal reasons for red-state resentment against displays of arrogance from some blue staters:
Yet, if the conversation turns to a consideration of the red states and rural America, many of these same coastal urbanites abandon their tolerant talk with remarkable suddenness. Then, it curiously becomes quite acceptable to look down on red state residents, if not to make fun of them unapologetically.
I’m reminded of a Los Angeles resident whom Nick Denton quoted in an essay he did about the red state/blue state split:
Such a sentiment is incompatible with one of this country’s foundational principles. If you are a citizen, then you should be regarded as fully American as any other citizen, regardless of one's race, gender, politics or sexual orientation -- or region.
This isn’t, or shouldn't be, a caste society based on one's geographical location. But a lot of people, in the blue-state region as well as the red-state camp, certainly act as if they would like it to be.
A good friend of mine in Omaha plays in a big band. His band once played in the Windows on the World restaurant that was at the top of one of the World Trade Center towers. My friend had a grand time performing there, a true highlight of his musical career. One of the curious things he noticed, though, was how so many of the New Yorkers he talked to seemed to have so little geographical understanding of the country. He used a vivid phrase to explain the situation: “Anything west of Pennsylvania was really fuzzy.”
Sure, many red staters are woefully ignorant of blue-state realities. But it’s urbanites who are the ones who stress their cosmopolitanism. Shouldn’t their curiosity extend to the full extent of the country?
This is America, and what people chose to do for their personal pleasure is for them to define.
Of course, this principle runs in both directions: Blue-state cosmopolitans can cite it to counter the finger-wagging accusations from middle-America moralists.
In any case, some blue staters will argue that something like country music just cries out for derision. Perhaps so, but doesn’t the same hold true for the club scene in New York or LA? Or how about the fashion industry? Or the McMansions phenomenon?
NASCAR, incidentally, is so popular nationwide that, although its popularity is rooted in red-state America, it holds races in blue-state locales such as New York and California. (As the New York Times expressed it two years ago: “NASCAR is now part of American culture. Of the 21 race tracks in the Winston Cup Series, the top races, only nine are in the Southeast.”)
The bottom line in the red state/blue state flap is really very simple: Neither region should claim moral superiority. The two regions (which each feature fascinating diversity anyway) both contribute significantly to the nation, no matter how petty the sniping between them.
Generosity of spirit
I just said above that no region of the country has a monopoly on virtue, and I meant it. But I have to mention two items in the news that reflected favorably on Nebraska.
First, officials at Penn State have sent a letter apologizing to University of Nebraska-Lincoln fans for the rudeness displayed by some Penn State fans during the recent football game between the two schools.
The incident reminded me of something special that Nebraska football fans do at home games in Lincoln. A special section in the stadium is designated for Nebraska fans to stand and applaud the visiting team as they exit the field at the end of the game.
I don’t know if that thing is thing is done anywhere else, but when I was first told about it upon moving here three years ago, I found it pretty classy. I still do.
Second, Bob Greene’s recent resignation from the Chicago Tribune was felt strongly in a particular Nebraska city, North Platte. Greene has a new book out about the North Platte Canteen, where residents of the Nebraska town were tireless during World War II in greeting and entertaining U.S. soldiers who stopped briefly as they headed west on troop trains to the Pacific Coast.
On the weekend when Greene resigned from the Tribune, he was scheduled to be in North Platte for events honoring the memory of the Canteen. He wrote a letter that was read at a banquet in North Platte that Saturday night. Here is an excerpt:
Sunday, September 22
Yes, that Warren and Bill
Great item from the Saturday column by Mike Kelly, a terrific Omaha World-Herald columnist:
Warren Buffett's Omaha house, incidentally, is far from a mega-mansion -- it's pretty modest for a wealthy person, let alone for someone of Buffett's jaw-dropping financial resources. Buffett doesn't go in for extravagant displays of wealth.
Gorat's steakhouse, incidentally, isn't far from my house. The restaurant is an old-line, old-fashioned Omaha steak place -- by no means a palace.
All of which reminds me of something unexpected my 8-year-old son asked me today. He and his 6-year-old sister were getting into our van after picking up a few things at the grocery store when he looked at a small sports car beside our car and asked, "Is that a symbol-of-wealth car?"
I told him no, it was a pretty plain little car. I asked where he got that term about "symbol of wealth." Said he saw it in a book.
Terrorist attacks and the red state/blue state thing
Max Sawicky is pretty good at coming up with ways to tweak us foreign policy hawks. (Max's stauchly left-leaning blog is on my blogroll, incidentally -- he has a great site.) In talking about the possible uses that terrorists might put weapons of mass destruction to use, Max cheekily writes:
Max's point about the "front line" is correct, of course, in the sense that the death and destruction visited on, say, New York, from a terrorist catastrophic device would obviously weigh directly on the residents of Gotham. But in another sense, Max is off-point, since an attack that devastated the nation's largest city and financial center would have calamitous ripple effects in every corner of the nation.
A quote that I've mentioned here before from the Southern studies scholar John Shelton Reed is relevant on this point. Writing in The American Enterprise (the journal of the American Enterprise Institute), John wrote that the 9/11 attack on New York was no more an attack on Gotham alone than a comparable attack on Mount Rushmore would have been an attack only on South Dakota.
In other words, we really are all in this together. That principle ought to be one to inspire and sustain us. It's only human that politically interested people become polarized over time along predictable partisan and ideological (and regional) lines. But it's too bad to see such divisions extend to the fight against terrorism.
That's the blunt characterization of her by Tim Giago, a Lakota Sioux editor who writes a weekly syndicated column.
Here is Giago's take on Lewis and Clark as well as Sacagawea, from his latest column:
BY THE WAY: Lewis and Clark began their journey by heading north up the Missouri River, a waterway which borders present-day Omaha on the east. The Missouri, some may be surprised to learn, is actually the longest river in the United States. The Mississippi is No. 1 by far, however, when it comes to flow and drainage area.
Saturday, September 21
The object of my jealousy
I was walking to my car at the end of a workday recently when an odd thought occurred to me. For some reason, I remembered one of the biggest disappointments from my childhood: the TV show "Lost in Space."
Even though I was only an elementary-age child when the show aired in the mid-1960s, I remember how I had such high hopes for the series. Indeed, the show in its early episodes (at least as I remembered it) had considerable portions of straightforward adventure. But the show soon decayed into a string of preposterous storylines involving that insufferable Dr. Smith and ludicrous guest villains. Irritating, too, was the series' incessant focus on that silly Robot ("Danger, Will Robinson!") and, yes, young Will Robinson.
For some reason, in the '60s I was insanely jealous of Billy Mumy, the child actor who played Will Robinson. I can't quite put my finger on why. But the feeling was there. Thirty years later, when he appeared as Lennier on "Babylon 5," my hostility toward him had, of course, vanished. I thought he actually did a pretty good job in B5. (Now that was a terrific sci-fi show, at least in its original, syndicated incarnation.)
Making room for conservative views
I posted the other day about a John Leo column that talked about the difficult time many conservatives have in making their voice heard in the university community. David Hogberg, writing at his Cornfield Commentary blog, says a regent with the University of Iowa system, to his credit, raised the same issue in a discussion about the selection criteria the University of Iowa should use in choosing its next president.
“We talk about gender and ethnicity, but we're boycotting a whole wide range of ideas, particularly conservative ideas,” said the regent, Clarkson Kelly.
There's more on the topic in Dave's original post.
Look who had an op-ed in my newspaper
It was an honor that the op-ed page at the Omaha World-Herald, where I work, today had a column written especially for us by none other than Eugene Volokh. Eugene e-mailed me the column several days ago; he argued that the Omaha City Council will be stepping outside the law if it denies non-citizens the right to own firearms, which is one part of a proposed revamping of local gun restrictions here in Omaha.
The City Council, I understand, is scheduled to vote on the gun measure on Tuesday.
Eugene, by the way, was quite professional in working with me to solve a technical problem late in the week so the World-Herald would be able to publish his op-ed today.
Thursday, September 19
The scandal of communist studies
I’m nodding off at my keyboard (still haven’t recovered completely from the stomach bug), so I’ll note some points raised by Martin Malia in a terrific piece in The National Interest titled “Judging Nazism and Communism,” then sign off.
Malia argues with passion that a stark contrast separates Western academics’ study of Nazism compared to that of communism. Scholars of Nazism (with the exception of apologists such as David Irving) squarely acknowledge the criminality and brutality of Hitler’s regime and ideology. Many professors of communist studies, whom by Malia’s description ironically characterize themselves as “revisionists,” shy away from making such harsh judgments and, in fact, cling to rationalizations that recently opened Kremlin archives have inexorably begun to discredit.
From the article (I’m not putting the excerpts in the order they appear):
The journal also features an excerpt from the Martin Amis book “Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million,” in which Amis says it is generally accepted “that if Stalin had lived a year longer his anti-Semitic pogrom would have led to a second catastrophe for Jewry in the mid-1950s.”
Presidents and their vacations
Philip Terzian writes historically informed columns for the Providence Journal in which he often uses understatement to present well-considered arguments. In a recent column, he calmly offered some telling observations:
As I said, understated, but he makes his point strongly.
Rap and antebellum Southern culture
I got a ton of e-mail on that topic today, responding to my post below about rap culture. I have included several of the comments and links in some updates to the post.
Wednesday, September 18
Blogging may be nonexistent here tonight. I've been battling what has turned out to be a mild stomach bug. I apparently got hold of some bad tranya over the weekend.
The Weekly Standard article isn't available online (available for free, that is), but this blurb about it from Slate is interesting:
Quotas for conservatives?
What is the partisan affiliation of faculty at highly ranked U.S. universities? John Leo, citing numbers from the American Enterprise Institute, provides some answers. He also touches on a range of familiar culture-war issues involving the academic community.
One graf especially worth noting:
He's right, of course.
UPDATE: A sharp-minded e-mail correspondent of mine takes a differing view, writing:
Antiwar, with a smile
Harrumphing in favor of a strong foreign policy is part of the norm at this site, but I have nothing but good things to say about humorist Madeleine Begun Kane, despite her insistent tweaking of Bush. Her wit and good humor are disarming.
Race, rap and journalism -- and the Old South
Leonard Pitts Jr., a sensible and always interesting columnist for the Miami Herald, examines the controversy that has erupted over a recent two-part Los Angeles Times series on the 1996 murder of rapper Tupac Shakur.
The background, as summed up by Pitts:
Impresario Russell Simmons has stepped forward to blast the LA Times series, as has journalist Kevin Powell (who was among the cast in the first edition of MTV’s “The Real World”). The Times series “represents the worst form of sensationalized journalism.” Powell wrote.
Pitts, however, strikes a different note. While saying that he won’t make a judgment on who committed the killing of Shakur, Pitts underlines a larger issue:
I can only echo what Pitts has said, while adding one historical note.
Rap, per se, is rooted in genuine sentiments of the inner city. For many people, it has tremendous cultural resonance. That ought to be respected. But, as Pitts says, many rappers have taken the guns-“hos”-and-platinum thing way too far.
In fact, the resemblance between the rap culture’s emphasis on hyper-sensitivity to imagined slights, and the hair-trigger resort to violence in the face of “disrespect,” bears an uncanny resemblance to the values system of the antebellum Southern aristocracy, with its support of dueling and fixation on defending one’s “honor.” The hubris and violent excess displayed in the brawls of today’s rappers are quite similar in spirit to that shown by South Carolinian Preston Brooks in 1856 when he used a cane to bludgeon abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner in the U.S. Senate chamber.
UPDATE: Wow, I can't believe the volume of e-mail this post has generated. Timothy Sandefur writes:
Another e-mail offered these observations:
Clayton Cramer, whose blog is here, points to an article in his book "Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform" (Praeger Press, 1999). (The book and other Cramer historical studies are described here.) The article's provocative first sentence: "Most people are surprised when I tell them that the South led the nation in the development of gun control laws."
ANOTHER UPDATE: Thomas Sowell, I'm informed in an e-mail, touched on this general topic in a Dec. 4, 1995, article in Forbes. Sowell wrote:
The always thoughtful Gary Haubold offers these points:
AND ANOTHER UPDATE: In regard to dueling in early America, Clayton Cramer e-mails this info:
Tuesday, September 17
Lessons from earlier arms inspections in Iraq
I've previously written about an article by Charles Duelfer, a former top official with the U.N. inspection operation in Iraq. He draws lessons from the previous inspection efforts in Iraq and sounds a pessimistic note. In rereading the article today, I found several additional passages that deserve quoting here:
Here are Duelfer's recommendations:
Duefler gives a new inspection regime low odds of success, however; in fact, he says ultimate failure is inevitable. At a minimum, his recommendations, based on practical experience in dealing with the Iraqi regime, ought to be incorporated into the ground rules for a new inspection effort, if one is approved by the Security Council.
UPDATE: Donald Sensing has a sharply conceived post on the whole topic. He even points to an interview with Duelfer today on Fox News.
Monday, September 16
A foreign policy lightning bolt
A cold has snuck up on me and really zapped me today. So, I’ll just excerpt a few quotes (not that I necessarily endorse all the ideas expressed) by commentators in the current issue of The National Interest, a foreign policy journal I strongly recommend, and then turn in for the night:
Everybody likes Mr. Spock
Good heavens -- I watch an old episode of Star Trek, have some laughs about it with my kids, and post some silliness about the Vulcan salute, Clint Howard and tranya at my blog. The next thing I know, Glenn Reynolds takes an interest in it, every third Trek fan in blogdom follows the link to my site, and my little post winds up on Blogdex. (It's listed under No. 103 as "What Being Jewish Means to Me - Leonard Nimoy.")
I shouldn't feel too proud of myself, though. After all, my post isn't being discussed here at all.
UPDATE: Gary Farber, who runs the level-headed Amygdala blog, responds. The guy knows his Trek.
National security vs. personal security
Very interesting post at Donald Sensing's site in which he deals with an assortment of things relating to antiwar arguments and complaints against Western materialism. What a mix -- Howard Zinn and George Monbiot, but also James Lileks and Orrin Judd.
I have some thoughts of my own to share on the subject, but I'll need to wait until tonight to post them.
MY TAKE ON THE SUBJECT: One point raised in the post is whether poor people in developing countries are happy with a modest life or whether they aspire to a higher, more modern standard of living. I won't presume to generalize about what the views of the poor are. But the discussion does remind me of a section in a book by historian Edward Ayers about how many Southerners in the late 1800s enthusiastically embraced a more varied diet, minor luxuries and labor-saving devices. Ayers writes:
Posts since Friday
For those who haven't seen the site since then, new posts cover territory including counterfactual history, myth-making, Star Trek, tornadoes and "the best thing Bill Clinton ever did."
Rewinding the course of Southern history
What if the first crucial civil rights decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1950s had focused not on school desegregation but on equal voting rights for blacks? Had black Southerners been given real political clout a decade before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, would Southern governmental authorities have been compelled to end Jim Crow years earlier than they actually did?
That is the thesis of an e-mail Roger Sweeny recently sent me. Here is how he set up his idea:
It’s a fascinating reconfiguration.
Still, as I understand things, an early championing of the one man, one vote principle by the Supreme Court probably wouldn’t have provided a powerful enough tool to accomplish the task that Roger has described. Had a Reynolds v. Sims-style ruling come down in 1954, it would have had enormous impact on redistricting, of course, but it probably wouldn’t have meant the end of widespread voter discrimination against blacks.
The Supreme Court, after all, had already struck down the Southern white primary in 1944 and reaffirmed that principle in a related case from Texas in 1953. Yet, as Roger said, Southern blacks still faced tremendous obstacles at the ballot box.
In other words, ending Jim Crow voter discrimination in the South probably would have required not an earlier form of one man, one vote but of South Carolina v. Katzenbach, the monumental 1966 ruling that said the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was within constitutional bounds in assigning wide-ranging federal power to finally end the political permutations of Jim Crow.
It’s hard to see how even the Warren court of the mid-1950s would have gone so far as to assert such an unprecedented assertion of federal prerogatives during the Eisenhower years, especially if specific legislation hadn’t been passed to that effect. And it’s more doubtful still to imagine that the Congress of the 1950s would have passed the Voting Rights Act 10 years early, given the clout and determination of Southern Democratic conservatives in opposing such moves.
Roger’s scenario is inventive and provocative. And perhaps my powers of imagination, or understanding of the law, are insufficient. But as I see it, forceful federal intervention was still the only way, realistically, to bring about the end of Jim Crow voter discrimination. The tools just weren’t available to reach that goal any other way.
UPDATE: John Rosenberg, an insightful student of Southern history, takes up a related counterfactual tangent on civil rights history at his site, Discriminations. The irony he points out is terrific, worthy of C. Vann Woodward himself.
BY THE WAY: Another counterfactual scenario, involving British history, was explored in detail here in August: What if Britain had adopted a Thatcherite economic policy in the 1940s instead of embracing the modern welfare state?
Sunday, September 15
Memory and myth
Andrew Sullivan’s essay to mark 9/11 began with a description of the wobbliness of human memory:
Yes. His description reminded me of how the fading of memory can open the way to myth-making.
Specifically, it reminded me of a passage in “Conquest,” Robert Hughes’ riveting popular history of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, about how the god Quetzalcoatl may have once been a real man, but whose story had been bent, then distorted, then gradually transcended -- “a figure perhaps half historical,” Hughes wrote, “half god”:
The Wizard of Oz meets Kirk
This weekend turned out, unexpectedly, to be Star Trek-centric in our household.
I was looking through a Star Trek commemorative magazine with my kids (ages 6 and 8) and found that Leonard Nimoy says Mr. Spock’s Vulcan salute had its origins in Nimoy’s own Jewish heritage. I looked and found this reference online (sorry, I could get only a cached version):
My kids saw their first Star Trek episode today. I rented “The Corbomite Maneuver,” in which Balak (little Clint Howard -- “We must drink. This is tranya.”) brought a bit of the Wizard of Oz to the Trek universe. (I tried to find "The Trouble With Tribbles" but was unsuccessful, but I thought this was a pretty good backup choice.)
Too scary for the kids, what with the famous grim-faced alien? I decided it wasn’t. The kids had a grand time.
At dinner, eating on the patio in the back yard after the kids had seen the episode, my 6-year-old daughter and I threw back our heads in imitation of Balak’s laugh.
It just doesn’t get any better than that.
I noted not long ago that U.S. companies invest more in Ireland than in China. A new TechCentralStation article provides a useful examination of the Irish economy. (I saw this in a post at Lynne Kiesling's blog The Knowledge Problem).
From the article:
The article also points out the threat to the Irish economy from the insistence by Eurocrats on "tax harmonization" within the EU:
The tax harmonization issue is also a concern for the United States. The topic will be explored here soon.
BY THE WAY: I intend to post Sunday night on that counterfactual scenario involving Southern history I mentioned the other day.
Saturday, September 14
The best thing Bill Clinton ever did
When Bill Clinton supporters describe what they consider the big accomplishments of his administration, the list usually includes things such as his budget policy, Treasury leadership under Robert Rubin, the declaration of public lands in the West as national monuments protected from development, and peace efforts that led to the Camp David offer to Arafat in July 2000. (I don’t view all those as unalloyed successes, but my intent here is to raise a different point.)
I have yet to see such a recitation include a laudable policy move that was long overdue by the federal government and immensely helpful in a practical way.
The policy action: the administration’s 1995 guidelines on how public schools should accommodate religion without stepping beyond proper constitutional boundaries.
Before the issuance of the guidelines, which were updated in 1998, the list of horror stories was quite long about how public school teachers and administrators had made bone-headed decisions that needlessly stigmatized children who had sought to include their religious beliefs in some form at their school, even if it was something as innocent as making Jesus the topic of a paper or bringing a Bible to school. I’ll never forget a Time magazine article from the early ’90s that examined a string of such mishandled school situations. And it doesn’t take much anyway for religious conservatives to depict themselves as martyrs whenever such controversies arise.
The Clinton guidelines, issued by the Department of Education under Secretary Dick Riley, didn’t -- and couldn’t -- end the controversies completely, but they did go far to calm the waters and advance common sense.
Indulge me to cite two short excerpts from the guidelines:
As I said: common sense. It’s telling that many teachers and administrators lacked the sound judgment to implement policies along those lines anyway, without federal guidance.
The education guidelines, by the way, were precisely the sort of thing that one would expect from former Southern Democratic governors such as Clinton and Riley. Southern Democrats who succeed in statewide races generally construct a winning coalition by looking for the political center and building support across as wide a swath of the electorate as possible. The Clinton education guidelines, in that sense, had a pronounced Southern Democratic flavor to them.
Clinton, as governor, used to spend part of each summer attending revivals hosted by Arkansas evangelicals, according to an old Washington Post series, probably by David Maraniss, I remember from the early '90s. Clinton, a Southern Baptist, probably had a fair understanding of the evangelical subculture. He certainly got the attention of evangelicals (though not necessarily in a positive way) when he chose to call his policy agenda in the early '90s a "New Covenant."
Land of the Big Cities
Quick, answer this question: Which state has the most cities on the list of the 10 most populous cities in the United States, according to the 2000 Census?
The answer is Texas. Its top-10 cities are Houston (No. 4), Dallas (No. 8) and San Antonio (No. 9).
I noticed that fact in one of my 8-year-old son’s reference books last night. It struck me as a surprise, even though I knew that Texas has moved past New York in the 2000 Census to become the state second-highest in population after California.
Three California cities do make the list if you count the top 11: Los Angeles (No. 2), San Diego (No. 7) and San Jose (No. 11).
A list of the top 50 cities, in terms of population, is here.
UPDATE: Dan Hobby writes in regard to U.S. metro areas: "Interestingly, if you take the top 48 Metro areas (those with populations over 1,000,000), you find the state with the most is Florida (5), followed by Texas & California with four. New York and Ohio have three." He provides a link to metro area rankings by population.
Also, David Hogberg weighs in with his perspective as an Iowan.
To live in the Great Plains is to become acquainted with the palpable threat from tornadoes. The novelist Louise Erdrich (pronounced “AIR-drik”), a North Dakotan whose writings explore Native American themes, offered an unforgettable description of a tornado in her 1998 novel “The Beet Queen”:
Who says the written word can’t match Hollywood special effects?
Barnes & Noble, incidentally, provides an excellent online overview of Erdrich’s work.
Friday, September 13
OK, a quick note on my blogroll
I intend to add to my blogroll soon. There are some great sites out there, and I have been remiss in not adding some particular ones to my links section.
I intend, incidentally, to add some left-learning blogs. Since I preach about how we're all Americans regardless of ideology and party, I think it's incumbent on me, as a blogger in the center-right vein on economic and foreign policy issues, to note that the blogosphere contains liberal-oriented sites worthy of respect and attention. Right now, I'm planning on bunching them right in with the right-wing blogs, since, frankly, I disagree on a lot of points anyway with some of the staunchly conservative writers I link to.
I plan to post again sometime Saturday night.
Thursday, September 12
I probably won't have a chance to post anything new here until sometime over the weekend. When blogging does resume, one item I intend to talk about is a fascinating counterfactual scenario involving Southern history in the 1950s and '60s suggested by Roger Sweeny.
It's been pointed out to me that not everyone on the political left supports the type of student rampage that forestalled Netanhayu's speech this week, contrary to my contention in a post below. It's a fair point.
Wednesday, September 11
The bandits reassert themselves
Today is an appropriate time to note these three items:
ADDENDUM: Austin Bay has an eloquent piece, titled "America's Vacation is Over," at StrategyPage.com. The piece begins on another topic but skillfully weaves in a 9/11 theme.
I had a great e-mail today from someone responding to my post about D.W. Griffith and Leni Riefenstahl. I thought I'd forwarded the message to my home e-mail for blogging, but for some reason it didn't make it. So, I'll reconstruct it from memory:
"In a college history class one night, the professor showed "Birth of a Nation" and "Triumph of the Will" as a double feature. Talk about a long night."
Tuesday, September 10
Robert Penn Warren, Denmark Vesey
I accidentally left out an item by blogger John Rosenberg in my recent roundup of Southern liberal journalist items the other day. His blog, Discriminations, is a terrifically conceived site that, most recently, has examined the contention that historians have ignored evidence that the 1822 Denmark Vesey slave conspiracy was in fact based on trumped-up charges.
At any rate, this point from Disciminations was worth noting:
I haven't had time to read the Michael Johnson essay that argues that the Denmark Vesey conspiracy was bogus. I'm torn: I respect the analysis by John Rosenberg that I read at his site, and the William and Mary Quarterly, which published the Johnson article, is first-rate.
But I also have enormous respect for one of the historians Johnson criticizes: William Freehling, who stands as one of the historical profession's most insightful scholars of the antebellum South. Freehling has hardly been one who has offered apologetics for slaveowners. On the contrary, his work abounds in pointing out the hypocrisies and flimsy rationales on which the Southern slave system was built.
Maybe Johnson is right and Freehling and others did misinterpret the historical documents; at this point, I have no firm view. But it's hard for me to attribute some sort of nefarious motive to Freehling.
One thing is certainly true. If Johnson is correct about the Denmark Vesey matter, it would be a real shock -- in one fell swoop, a major event long regarded as seminal in the history of Southern slavery would be removed from the record (or, more specifically, radically reinterpreted). It would be somewhat comparable to discovering that, say, Thomas Jefferson actually had not been involved at all in writing the Declaration of Independence.
Do Johnson's charges amount to something bigger than the Bellesiles matter? It depends on your point of view. Both are very big deals within the community of historians. Some black Americans no doubt have a strong interest in how the slavery record is interpreted. As far as the impact on the general public, though, there's no comparison: For most Americans, guns are a lot bigger issue than how scholars should interpret the documentary evidence on an incident in Charleston in 1822.
Ted Rall, taking the low road, as usual
As you can see here.
He really knows how to mark the 9/11 anniversary with the moral sensitivity it deserves, doesn't he?
To study the craft of documentarian Leni Riefenstahl, with her calculated use of cinematic technique to promote fascist ideology, raises a fascinating question: Should a director’s technical brilliance be appreciated even if her political message is reprehensible?
With Riefenstahl, the answer seems pretty clear: Yes, it can. But it is hard to fully respect it.
The level of imagination and vision she demonstrated in her work can’t be ignored. But neither, of course, can the evil to which she devoted her talents. (The legacy of Riefenstahl, who recently turned 100, is examined in a post below, along with consideration of other documentarians of the World War II era.)
The same considerations apply to D.W. Griffith, director of “The Birth of a Nation,” a 1915 ode to Ku Klux Klan values that nonetheless set the basic framework for cinematic technique along many dimensions. (Two worthwhile examinations of the film can be found here and here.)
Among the many techniques Griffith pioneered: cross-cut editing between scenes; using camera shots of various lengths; varied camera angles; camera movement including tracking shots; night photography; and a score, to be performed live, written especially for the film.
Griffith demonstrated a deep understanding of film tempo. Editing, in other words, was used as a tool to amplify the mood of a sequence. “The Birth of a Nation” was the first film in which that approach was used consistently and effectively.
The film was pioneering, too, in its sharp sense of continuity. Regardless of whether the viewer was seeing an extremely long shot or a medium shot during the battle scenes, in every instance the Confederates entered from the left and the Union forces from right. (In that regard, see the post below in regard to a John Huston World War II documentary.) Today, that seems merely a tried-and-true technique. Griffith’s achievement was that he was the first to use it.
Film scholars point out that Griffith wasn’t the first to use some of the techniques usually credited to him. But he was the first to use them together in a coherent way, producing a cinematic vision of powerful effect.
(The sophistication didn’t extend to some of the special effects. There was a lot of danger on the sets for the battle scenes, since Griffith used real cannons and -- to create certain explosions -- real grenades. Another nugget: John Ford, who would go on to become of the great American directors, was an extra in the film’s Klan ride sequence.)
Still, for all its technical brilliance, “The Birth of the Nation” stands as a steadfast and appalling defense of white supremacy. The film is the angry shout of a 19th century mindset in which white Klansmen were cast as noble cavaliers and black citizens as sub-human.
One of the subtitles, in fact, uses the term “Aryan” in a racist context.
In 1999, the Directors Guild of America, citing the film’s “intolerable racist stereotypes,” renamed its top award, which had been named after Griffith.
The reaction to the film in 1915 reveals much about American social and political attitudes of the day. Film critic Richard Schickel provided a fascinating account in his biography of Griffith, "D.W. Griffith: An American Life.”
President Woodrow Wilson watched the movie, at the time the longest and most expensive film of the era, in the White House in February 1915 along with members of his staff and Cabinet, the film to be shown there. His much-quoted reaction to the film: "It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
Wilson had known Thomas Dixon, author of the novel and play on which the film was based, years earlier, when Dixon had arranged for Wilson to receive an honorary degree from Wake Forest College in North Carolina.
Dixon, who attended the White House screening, persuaded Edward D. White, the Louisiana-born chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, to see the movie. White brought along several of his fellow justices.
The movie premiered on Feb. 8, 1915, in Los Angeles. The local chapter of the NAACP tried to block the showing of the showing, arguing that the movie would spark racial tensions that could lead to riots. The matinee was blocked, but the evening performance was allowed. An orchestra provided music in a packed 2,500-seat theater. The usherettes were wearing Civil War-era gowns.
Schickel described the audience reaction this way: “all recall the audience leaping up, cheering and applauding and stamping their feet, not to be stilled until Griffith made an appearance.”
A month later, the film premiered in New York City. The audience, according to a trade paper, included many representatives of the city’s social and literary elite. The response was enthusiastically favorable. So were the reviews in New York newspapers.
Schickel writes: “The next day there were lines at the box office and they would continue to form there for weeks, as the initial critical excitement over the film was supported by audience enthusiasm for it.”
The New York Times' coverage of the premiere consisted of an un-bylined piece that described some of the atmosphere of the evening's event and talked about the film's successful achievement. It skirted Griffith's racist message -- “a rather pleasantly purist view of the critical function by modern standards,” Schickel writes.
"Indeed," he adds, "it is remarkable that so few critics, in their initial responses to the film, even alluded to its portrayals of blacks, its view of the historical incident it purposted to portray accuately -- depite the fact that the NAACP was hauling it into court whenever it opened in major cities, while, of cours, making its opinion of the film known everywhere.”
The reviewer for the Hearst-owned Evening Journal gave his New York readers this advice: “First of all, children must be sent to see this masterpiece. Any parent who neglects this advice is committing an educational offense, for no film has evern produced more educational points than Griffith’s latest achievement.”
The trade paper Variety lavished praised on the film, even going so far to praise its portrayal of the historical record. It was a picture, the Variety reporter wrote, that “would please all white classes.”
The movie continued its run at the New York theater, the Liberty, for some 11 months. Including subsequent runs, Schickel says, it was seen by an estimated 825,000 people in the New York area alone.
Not that critical voices weren't sounded. The NAACP, then a fledgling organization, received support from Jane Addams and New York philanthropists Jacob Schiff, Lillian Wald and Dr. Jacques Loeb, as well as from what Schickel termed a “group of prominent white Southerners.”
Addams was scathing in her criticism of the film in an interview conducted with the New York Post (a paper that, along with the Evening Journal, would eventually voice strong editorial criticism of the film).
The New Republic, which was founded in March 1915 only a month after the movie’s New York premiere, delivered another blow. Francis Hackett, a novelist and playwright, wrote a review in which he blasted Thomas Dixon.
Comparing Dixon to a yellow journalist, Hackett wrote: “He is yellow becaues he recklessly distorts Negro crimes, gives them a disproportionate place in life and colors them dishonestly to inflame the ignorant and credulous. And he is especially yellow, and quite disgustingly and contemptibly yellow, because his perversions are cunningly calculated to flatter the white man and provoke hatred and contempt for the Negro.”
“The Birth of a Nation,” he added, is “spiritual assassination. It degrades the censors that passed it and the white race that endures it.”
New York Mayor John Purroy Mitchell agreed to hear a delegation address him about the film. The delegations included W.E.B. DuBois, who was then editing the NAACP’s journal, The Crisis; Rabbi Stephen Wise, the nation’s leading Reform rabbi; and Oswald Garrison Villard, editor of the New York Post.
Wise called the film an “inexcusably foul and loathsome libel on a race of human beings.” He also stated, “the Negroes in this city have been patient. They have not yet arisen, like the Irish who attacked ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ when they recognized it as caricature and not as characterization.”
Mitchell responded by saying that some racist scenes would be cut from the film. The film's opponents found the deletions to be meager and unsatisfactory.
The film enjoyed considerable popularity nationwide, although protests were frequently mounted in large cities. The criticisms grew strong enough that Joseph P. Tumulty, Woodrow Wilson’s chief public relations adviser, advised the president to back away from his inititial praise of the film.
Although the NAACP failed in its efforts to block the film, the fight provided what Schickel called an important early "rally point" for the organization. (The controversy also put Booker T. Washington in a difficult position, since he found that he eventually had to abandon the mild reaction he had initially expressed and adopt an outright critical one.)
A few notes about Griffith's later career. He followed up "The Birth of a Nation" with an extravagance titled “Intolerance” that again displayed great skill. But the film in no way endorsed racial tolerance. And it lambasted social reformers -- the types who had led the fight in 1915 against "The Birth of a Nation."
Griffith made two talking pictures. One, starring Walter Huston and made in 1930, was “Abraham Lincoln.”
In 1940, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City staged a retrospective exhibition on Griffith's career.
Germany has its Leni Riefenstahl; America, its D.W. Griffith. Such awesome artistic genius can be appreciated, but not fully respected.
An item titled "America’s Riefenstahl" will appear here this morning.
No new items were posted last night because I worked late at the office.
Monday, September 9
I just saw that George Will's column on Sunday touched on the importance of the Spanish-American War (the link to the Will column wasn't working at one point today due to what the Washington Post called "maintenance" at its site):
Some people new to this site might be interested in a previous set of posts here that explored the historical significance of the Spanish-American War. Among the points raised: ):
For a conflict regarded by the public at large as a very minor affair, the Spanish-American War actually had great long-term significance for U.S. foreign policy and nation's military.
Over the weekend I noted Media Minded’s recent post about W.J. Cash, author of a seminal study of Southern history, “The Mind of the South.” Cash’s introduction to the 1941 book included a well constructed passage worth quoting:
I'd argue, incidentally, that the end of Jim Crow in the 1960s marked a decisive break in Southern thinking, opening the way to new thinking in several important ways (as if, of course, there were only a single regional "mind" anyway). But that is a topic for another time.
I substitute for a computer-operator colleague all this week at work. That means I'll have less time for blogging (and less time for answering e-mail in a timely fashion). So, although I intend for a new post or two to appear each day, the overall quantity will probably be less than usual.
For anyone who hasn't seen this site since Friday, around 10 items were posted over the weekend. Topics range from the inevitable failure of weapons inspections in Iraq to an examination of Leni Riefenstahl and World War II-era documentaries.
Sunday, September 8
Resources for regional studies
In recent days I’ve received encouraging e-mail from people who share an interest in U.S. regional studies. One person asked for a recommendation about where to turn for scholarly, but readable, examinations of Great Plains issues.
Although there are a variety of choices, I will recommend, and link to, two first-rate journals: for the part of the country where I’m living, Great Plains Quarterly; for Southern studies, Southern Cultures.
Each is published by a well-respected institution: the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (the nation’s first center for regional studies), and the Center for the Study of the American South, at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (my undergrad alma mater, I’m proud to say).
I know academicians at both institutions, and they are doing marvelous work.
Over time, I will expand the focus of this site to directly include U.S. Western studies; indeed, a set of posts here will soon examine the connection between American Western art and the region’s history.
I don’t intend for this site to focus exclusively on regional matters. But I do want such material included in the mix, as the very title of this blog indicates. Addressing regional issues was one of the prime motivators for starting this site. I don't envision myself as Walter Lippman. This blog is going to address some headline-related themes, particularly on foreign policy, but a lot of the topics here will simply be examinations of history, regionalism and whatever else strikes me.
Incidentally, because of the blog discussion of Southern journalists last week, I have several Southern-related topics in the pipeline, thanks mainly to contacts I’ve made in the wake of that discussion. I intend to space those items out in coming days, so that non-Southerners visiting this blog don’t grow weary of the Dixie-related themes.