Sunday, March 27, 2011

Mausoleums of history.

I am happy to report that my week of research went very well. The papers I were looking at were completely unorganized, subverting even the desire of the archivist to bring me out something more select, so I got the pleasure of shifting through 24 boxes all on my own. As it turned out, about 10 of those boxes had materials in them very useful to me (especially a core 3-4 boxes) and then the other 14 were pretty worthless and easily categorized as being so. Therefore, despite what the hard core might say, it is quite possible to get a lot done in an archive in a week.

I was once again amused by the archaic and sometimes somewhat silly “culture of archives,” let’s call it. In many ways, archives are beautiful and inspiring places to work in – they are big on the Grecian architecture, they have fine, beautiful wood tables with elegant lamps, and they are decorated with the historical portraits of notables. The silence in an archive, and the seriousness which seems to hang from the shelves containing reference works no one ever references, remind one that even in an age of iPhones, instant entertainment and the always latest, newest thing, there are still quiet places which revere the past and the quiet contemplation it requires.

On the other hand, archives can also be stifling places to work. I personally cannot stand studying in total silence and therefore must bring in headphones to pipe in some classical music while I work.  While the surroundings are beautiful, after several hours of sitting they can no longer distract me from the ache in my back, the growl in my tummy or my undeniable need to stretch. Part of me feels like I get exposed as less than a true scholar in the archives – while others in the reading room seem to sit calmly and contently during the entire day, I am often fidgeting, yawning, stretching, or even muttering quietly to myself when amused or confused by something I come across. It is like I lack scholar Zen, or something. And then there is my inability to get there right when the archive opens – I always sleep in a half-hour or an hour later than I should. This week I managed to get there right on time once in the week, although as it turned out, it never mattered because I finished early on my last day anyway. But the very aesthetic of research makes one feel obliged to flip on the internal Puritan switch.

Then there are all the rules. Let me acknowledge that some of these, even most of these, make plenty of sense. They do not want you bringing in large backpacks – makes sense. They do not want you bringing in pens – makes sense. They do not want you bringing in a jacket – wait, what? Because I am going to try to smuggle 40 year old documents from some obscure sociologist out in my jacket and sell them on eBay? Granted if I were say, reading letters written by John Adams (which I in fact have the bragging rights to), this would make more sense. But it isn’t just big, bulky jackets that one might conceivably be able to muffle the sound of crinkling paper with that they forbid, but almost anything that makes it difficult to discern your cup size. I always forget this the first day at an archive, and therefore always spend it shivering, rubbing my arms to try to keep warm. And this is with long sleeved shirts; these places are kept quite cool.  Fortunately, well-fitted sweaters are allowed.

Finally, and more seriously, the very formality of archives makes me somewhat sad. The fact that these are elegant, quiet places that require IDs and badges to get into seems to point towards how selective their clientele, how encrusted with the nobility of insignificance the boxes that make up its contents. In the heydays of Jacksonian democracy, no one thought it a great sin to bring a giant piece of cheese into the White House to stink the place up for a few weeks – but now that such uproarious participation seems quaint, we have guided tours and gilded hallways, as though we trying to honor American democracy through mystification of its past, rather than participation in its present. The archive I went to this week was particularly poignant in this regard – let it suffice to say that it started out as something approaching the true spirit of citizen participation in a republic: but today, it merely seems like a well-decorated tomb for forgotten history, the kind of place only the educated and the elite of the country return to. As beautiful as archives are, they also serve to remind me how much of our history has become precisely that - rather than a living, present reality that we all must grapple with.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Jon Stewart - A Poem.

Disclaimer: I am allowed to be silly on this blog. We are all allowed to be silly. The world needs more silliness.
Jon Stewart you are like,
The best person ever.

You take the most obvious truths,
And the most obscure ones,
And make them so funny -

And I love watching you talk to conservatives -
And they are speechless,
And it feels SO DAMN GOOD.

And Jon Stewart,
You are so adorable.
And attractive.
And funny.
And did I mention attractive?
Because nothing is more attractive than a guy that is funny.
And so sincere.
And so really a Really Good Guy
And you give all us liberals a Good Good Name
Because there are some stupid liberals out there
Who do not know why they think what they think --
But you aren't one of them.
You are fucking brilliant.

And I am so glad I spent the money,
To go to the Rally to Restore Sanity,
Because that was something I believed in,
It represented me -
And you made it possible.

And I fucking love you, Jon Stewart.
You remind me how not alone I am.

And today I voted for you at the Museum of Jewish American History
To have your own video in the hall of notables
Because you are seriously the greatest Jew ever
And maybe the best person ever.
:) :) :)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Out for research.

Just wanted to leave a note that I probably won't be posting for the next week or so, as I will be on the East Coast doing research for my dissertation. It is very important to historians that we know that we've walked in cold weather to large libraries, and sat in the same room for seven or eight hours for days on end. Without this, your work means little to nothing. It is from this experience that you derive all your arguments, as the mystical power of original documents seeps like radiation from their fibers and is absorbed by your brain like a sponge.

I kid. But in truth, the fetishism around archival research can get a bit silly at times. (As opposed to reading the exact same documents on your computer screen, that is.)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

On craven, callous bastards.

I just finished watching Inside Job, a documentary about the 2008 financial meltdown and the greed and corruption that it was built on. I am left with a feeling that has become all too familiar to me in the past two years – a frightened, besieged sense of existing in a dystopia; of living in a society where distinctly shameless people do distinctly shameless things, and are rewarded with wealth and power.

I’m not going to go into any of the details the movie covers, or the various ways in which various people lacked courage or decency. Excellent summaries of the film can be found elsewhere, I am sure. But to me, one question does stand out above all other questions that can be raised by such a film, and it is a question as timeless as greed and corruption itself. It is, simply, how do these people sleep at night?

This question has, of course, been asked. But by now, it is usually asked as a form of accusation – we all know the answer, which is that these people are shameless, hallow, and selfish. And that all appears to be true. But knowing this much is not enough for me – I still want to know, why are these people shameless, hallow and selfish or, more accurately, how do they function while being so shameless, hallow and selfish, and how does one end up there in the first place? Most of us are, after all, still raised in communities that at least give lip service to the idea that being a craven, callous bastard is bad. We are told by our parents not to be craven, callous bastards. Our school teachers tell us not to be craven, callous bastards. To some extent the media advises us not to be craven, callous bastards. Save for a time during the 1980s, films do not typically glorify craven, callous bastards. Our religions tell us not to be craven, callous bastards. But yet, there are so many craven, callous bastards around. And a lot of them seem to be running the country. 

The socio-economic reasons for this could be either quite complex, or disturbingly simple; but that is not the question that I am addressing here. Perhaps more than anything else, it is the psychological ability of these people to be the wretched people they are that fascinates me so; that people could be so corrupt, and so lacking in basic human empathy, that they continue functioning and flourishing in any way at all is actually quite amazing.

This conundrum is illustrated most powerfully in the film when people are presented with their own misconduct, or simply conflict of interest, and seem to insist on not facing the truth honestly or, becoming belligerent and requesting the interview to be over. What do those people think when they go home at night? Do they proceed to go on rants in the privacy of their own homes and minds about how the world should be ordered according to an oligarchy, and yes it is fine that (see video bellow) my academic economic work is corrupted by the large banks that pay me to consult for them, because I am better and smarter than most people and if we really let “the little people” run things we would end up with anarchy within months? Do they acknowledge their corruption but embrace it?, or do they suffer from an acute case of self-delusion and believe, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, that they are simply victims of an elaborate witch hunt? 

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Islamaphobia; a cluster of links.

Although an atheist, discrimination against Muslims is something I feel strongly about. Following an interview I conducted with Reza Aslan, I wrote extensively about whether or not atheists contribute to xenophobic fears of Muslims. (The answer was, for the most part, no, although there are some bad apples.) In Part III of these posts, I argued against Sam Harris’s contention that Islam is the primary reason for the violence in the Middle East and the terrorism coming out of it. Recently, Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times, wrote a column about a new book which argues that it wasn’t so much Islam, but Islamic law, that held back the development of the Middle East. 

At The Rally to Restore Sanity.

Additionally, a new post by my fellow blogger Tom Beasley is up discussing the issue of Islamaphobia. As Tom makes clear, finding a religion to be false and, in many respects ethically abhorrent, does not mean one believes that followers of that faith should be assumed to be any less decent or deserving of equal treatment than a Christian, a Hindu, or an atheist. Atheists are, moreover, generally believers in freedom of worship and expression (despite the stereotypes that we want to “force” disbelief on people) and most of us do not advocate policies such as the minaret ban in Sweden or the hysteria over the “Ground Zero Mosque.” I am happy to say that our blog has been quite consistent about separating our criticism of Islam from prejudice against Muslims.

Finally, I feel that among many people, there is a strong strain of denial about Islamaphobia – “Oh come on,” our hypothetical backlasher says, “it is not like Muslims have been discriminated against or anything since 9/11. Not anything that bad, at least.” Well, yes they have. If the reports of increased incidents of discrimination do not convince you, then try something a little more personal: This American Life had an excellent show that told the story of how harassment in school actually broke apart a Muslim family in America. I challenge anyone to listen to the entire story and not feel heartbroken.