Friday, December 9, 2016

Resistance Fridays: I wrote a letter

...to Paul Ryan.

A real letter that I have signed and I will put in an envelope and put a stamp on and mail to Janesville, Wisconsin.

No, I'm not a constituent. Nor am I a Republican. But I am someone who is concerned about stuff. And he's in a position in which he can do stuff about stuff. Or not. And if we want stuff done (or stuff opposed), we're going to need to engage with those in position to influence stuff.

That's it. It's Friday.

Do stuff.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Accidental Writer

I haven't been writing much about writing. In general, writing is a frustrating process for me, and talking about how frustrating it is often finds me with my head further up my ass than when I began. Or, even worse, writing about writing takes away time that I should be using to write.

So it is with real pleasure that I share a bit of news. I may have shared at some point about "procrastivity" -- that is, procrastination, accidental or deliberate, that somehow turns into productivity.

This was not real procrastination. Rather, it was prioritizing a talk over writing my book. That's productive, sure, but not the thing I was supposed to be working on. But there it is: this semester found me plugging away at a "what I did on my leave" presentation for my department. I was supposed to present on my research for about 40 minutes, after which there would be another 40 minutes of Q & A, and then we'd all go home. It's actually a very nice thing our department does, and something you don't often find outside of research universities.

So I started writing. And here's the amazing cool thing that happened:

.....................................................
Late September: Should I present a chapter? No: since I'm close to done with this project, I should present an overview. So this will include narrations about what my big question is, and also what each chapter is, and how it contributes to the whole.

Early October: But then there's the question of audience: If my presentation is all medieval, then my colleagues (almost all historians of the 19th and 20th centuries) might find themselves at a loss for how to engage. So... Okay, I'll make sure to have a lot in there about approach and methodology and maybe even a little of that Cool New Theoretical Framework I've been trying to use.

Mid-October: This thing is getting kind of way to long. Remember THAT ONE PRESENTATION that never ended? You don't want to do that. Nobody ever complained that a presentation ran short after all. But I don't want to dam the flow. I'll just write it as it comes out of my brain, and the fact that it's about 8,500 words long is okay; I'll just cut it down for the presentation....


Hey. 

Wait just one minute.

8,500 words. With question, argument, methodology, theory, narrative chapter outline...

DID I JUST ACCIDENTALLY WRITE A DRAFT OF MY BOOK'S INTRODUCTION?

Yeah. I'm pretty sure I did.

.....................................................

Huzzah for procrastivity!!!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

While we're burning the system to the ground...

Yesterday, the New York Times posted an op-ed by a Dallas elector who stated why he was going to refuse to cast his electoral vote for... well, you know the guy. The orange one with the alleged "hair." I wrote on the facebooks that I wasn't sure how I felt about this: I would be happy with the result, but this would basically further erode trust in an elections system that is already as frayed as one's gym underwear (come on -- don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about).

But then I got to thinking, and I realized that this is a situation that has some merit to it. Here's my fantasy of how it plays out (and yes, I know this is a fantasy. But let me have it for a few hours):

  1. Dallas elector's example is followed by others who are not willing to go public, but who know that the future of the country rest in their hands: Will they turn the country over to a dangerously ignorant narcissist? Okay, I think most of them will. Because most people hate confrontation. Most people are rule-followers. Hell, I'm mostly a rule-follower. But some people will see a crisis. Maybe some. Maybe enough.
  2. Agent Orange loses the electoral college vote, and is not president. Who becomes president? Honestly, who cares at this point. Because other than some of the cabinet appointees and their backers, there is no one less qualified or more dangerous. 
  3. The GOP members of congress express vociferous outrage! And (here's the key bit) respond by moving through legislation to do away with the electoral college altogether and have presidents elected by popular vote. And the democrats, in a gentleperson's agreement, tactfully do not mention how secretly relieved their GOP colleagues are.
See? This way, everybody wins. Well, everybody except one person. But I could live with that.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Resistance Fridays

So yeah, I'm concerned. And likely to stay that way for a while. I'm concerned that less than a quarter of this country's eligible voters have elected a sexist, narcissist charlatan who has shown a willingness to get into bed with racists, white supremacists, and white nationalists, and who either hasn't read the constitution or doesn't give a damn about things like a free press and the rule of law.

I'm concerned that the president-elect is more interested in appearing before a cheering crowd than actually doing the business of governing, which appears to bore him.

I'm concerned that the president-elect does not read, nor does he care to know anything that does not confirm what he already believes.

So I am resisting.

Part of that resistance is by keeping on doing what I'm already doing: by teaching, by underlining the importance of critical thinking, by refusing to give ignorance a pass. Part is mentally preparing for what I will do if confronted with injustice: mentally preparing myself to intervene. Part is writing checks. Part is volunteering to volunteer. Part is making calls, registering my protest with people who can make a difference. Reaching out to people who might be swayed.

Mostly, I need to make an appointment with resistance, and make it part of my schedule. Because human beings can adapt to the most atrocious circumstances, and decide that the unacceptable is actually acceptable. And it's not.

So I hereby declare "Resistance Fridays." Every Friday, I will report an act of resistance, small or large, a concrete measure I have taken to push back against the unacceptable.  I have no illusions: I know that most outcomes will be losses. But I can't not fight back. And dedicating some time, once a week, to resisting will remind me to stay in the fight.

Here is this Friday's act:

This week, the news is full of reports of how the incoming President's business holdings make him vulnerable to quid-pro-quo arrangements. He will have the power to appoint the head of the National Labor Relations Board, an organization that is currently ordering him to correct violations of federal labor law at his hotels. He will appoint the next head of the Justice department, a federal bureau investigating financial malfeasance of Deutsche Bank, a financial institution holds millions in Trump family loans. He continues to lean on Scotland about wind farms that, according to him, mar the view from the Trump golf course. And, of course, there are the foreign diplomats flocking to stay at the Trump Hotel on Pennsylvania avenue -- a property that Trump leases from the federal government, under a contract that states that no federal employee may profit from the lease.

I would not worry about his dealings now if he had even an ounce of shame. He does not. If he is not stopped, he will continue to bleed the country dry for his own benefit. It's unethical. It's shameful. It's gross.

Yet there have been two rays of sunshine in all this. The first was the Office of Government Ethics' masterful Twitter-trolling of the Troll-in-Chief, right down to imitating his diction and punctuation. The second was that the Senate introduced a resolution urging His Orangeness to divest.

I'm down with that. So my Friday act of resistance was to write both of my senators, thanking them, and my Representative, asking him to sign on if such a thing came through the house -- or maybe to propose something himself.

Resistance Fridays: Make it a thing.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

My Day-After Diary

There was an election. And then there was fallout, and trying to figure out what to do. And in the middle of that, there was the flu. But I did write something, on Wednesday, November 9. And now it's time to share it. And maybe other things as well. Because as SquadratoMagico pointed out in our day-after e-mails, one of the things we do is write.

Today sucked. I cried. Literally broke down and heaved great gasping sobs in my office. Online, I wrote about how we need to not give up. And I know I will eventually pick myself up and figure out some way to ACT, so that history isn't just something that happens to me. But right now I can't imagine what it would be.

I want to reproduce the words that my sister wrote to me, about how Emergency Backup Nephew, not yet seven, started the evening excited, and went to bed crying. I can't. Reading those words breaks me in two. I think of the two little girls I saw at the school where I voted, and how their eyes got big and their faces broke into smiles when I answered them ("who are you voting for?") with "I'm voting for Hillary." What kind of morning did two African-American sisters, probably 7 and 9, have this morning? As bad as my nephew's? As bad as the girls at Wellesley who were interviewed on NPR, saying they looked at the map and saw a country that didn't want them? A country that would rather vote for the most willfully ignorant and utterly unqualified dangerous narcissist to be elected by a democratic process?

Students here protested. I am proud of them. I'm worried that they are insisting "not my president" and even more that "the election was rigged." Taking refuge in denial or conspiracy theories is no way to solve a real problem. But they don't need a middle-aged white lady telling them how to run their revolution.

I still don't know what I'm going to do with myself. So far I have made donations, I have sent e-mails volunteering to volunteer (no response yet). I have written to a local Islamic center expressing my sadness at a recent bit of horrible hate mail they'd gotten, and asking if I could help in any way. Other than that... I feel like I should be doing something. But perhaps here, as in other things, I will write my way in.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Notorious Book Club Day 4: Details, Details (Grafton, chs. 5 & 6)

I had a conversation with a grad student about two weeks ago about a thesis chapter of hirs. The writing was elegant, and there was a great argument at the chapter's core. The problem (in my estimation) was that ze had spent pages detailing the names and contributions of every middling lord in north-central Floopriana, with the predictable result that hir argument became lost in a sea of hard-won erudition.

What do we do with the details? Chapters five and six of Grafton's history of the footnote jump us back another century, from the literary footnotes of the eighteenth century to the seventeenth century, to address this question. Chapter five focuses on the the dilemma of the late Humanists, pulled in two by contradictory impulses: on the one hand, wanting to adhere to the models of classical scholarship, which prized elegance of narrative form; on the other, attached to the source criticism that characterized earlier humanists like Lorenzo Valla. Grafton shows how early c. 17 historians handled their ambivalent relationship to footnotes. On the one hand, Jacques-Auguste de Thou, a Latinist and Parisian lawyer, steadfastly refused to include footnotes in his text... but he did leave behind a massive volume of correspondence with other scholars that, in a sense, served as an informal annotation for the scholarly community. Samuel Johnson, whose  position (and possibly very life) depended on his history not being trotted out as evidence of sedition, included notes to his sources, but only reluctantly, taking time in his preface to preemptively defend himself against charges of pedantry.

Less fearful of such charges were the subjects of Grafton's sixth chapter, the ecclesiastical historians and the antiquarians. Also denizens of the seventeenth century, these writers were unafraid of accusations of pedantry: they were practicing a form of history in which erudition was the watchword, rather than stylistics. For the ecclesiastical historians, mountains of detail served as arsenals in sectarian conflicts. Data was so important that interpolations and outright forgeries were far from unknown... giving rise to peripheral disciplines like paleographics and diplomatics in order to root out forgeries created in this age. [Note: will someone please write a history of a golden age of forgery?] For the antiquaries, the details were not the means to pushing a sectarian agenda; they were the end in and of themselves. The were collectors and catalogers, preserving detail for its own sake. And in both cases, since erudition lay at the core, annotation was not only tolerable, it was essential.

What to take away from all this detail about how historians deal with detail? Well, the main thing for me is how very diverse an ecosystem early modern historiography was. And how very contested the definition of "history" is, and how that all relates to how we deal with details. Do we, as my student did, include them all because every one holds a small piece of the puzzle? Do we pare them back (as I recommended to said student) in the service of an elegant and reader-friendly narrative? When we make these choices, what are we saying about our job as historians?

And how does this all relate to the modern footnote? Well, that's Grafton's final chapter -- the one where he brings it all together. Stay tuned...

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Notorious Book Club reconvenes next Monday...

...because I'm up to my eyeballs in work until then. October is going to be... interesting.

So: next Monday we do the two back-to-the-future chapters. Tuesday we do the Cartesian chapter. Wednesday, conclusions.

And then we'll be all caught up and I'll learn not to be so damn enthusiastic about how much I can do and still sleep and sometimes (but not this week) even buy groceries.

--NPhD