Friday, March 12, 2010

Sherlock Holmes and the Historian's Question

As I'm sure you are aware, I am a student of history. One of the funny little things about history when you really dive into the proper study of the subject is that it is nothing like what you think.

When I first started to study history, I thought of the historian as a kind of Sherlock Holmes. We'd take the information available to us and try to figure out what really happened. There's a common belief that history involves a knowledge of dates and names and then culminates in a sort of whodunnit. When the mystery is solved, we're pretty much done with it. The only thing left to do with the given event is to remember it - someone needs to study it every generation so as to keep it alive; the rest of us read about it or learn about it in school because it's interesting and worth knowing. Maybe we can even glean some knowledge about how to go about our own undertakings by seeing how things played out in similar situations in the past.

Elementary, my dear Watson.

This way of thinking has led to an idea in the popular mind that there is a right way to understand any event in the past, while any other view is, for whatever reason, wrong and must be dismissed.

The problem? It's utterly wrong.

Sure, in some sub-disciplines in history, there is a sense of figuring out what happened. This is especially true of ancient history, which provides us with so few sources that there is some debate as to the historicity of many events.

But outside of ancient history, this just doesn't work. Think of it this way - we have more sources from World War II than we do from all of Greco-Roman literature.

So, with the (tentative) exception of archaic/ancient history, we know what happened. The historian's major questions, then, are how and why, which are more interconnected than may be obvious at first glance.

The how is perhaps a little easier to understand - how does a German dissident jailed for treason gain a massive following and, in a matter of years, pull all of Europe into war? The how is connected both to the what and the why. How do we get from one point to the next?

The why is most certainly the biggest question posed by the historian.

It can be posed about the big issues:
- Why did the Renaissance occur when it did?
- Why didn't the American colonists not revolt against England in 1773 or earlier?
- Why did the Crusaders attack Constantinople?
- Why did the US drop two atomic bombs on Japan in rapid succession?

Or it can be posed to the individual:
- Why did George Whitefield prefer extemporaneous preaching outside of the traditional church building?
- Why did Herodotus choose to write about the Persian War(s) in the way he did?
- Why did Napoleon return to France from exile?

The great thing about the why in history is that there is no one right answer. There are plenty of wrong answers, but the right answer is eternally elusive. I know a number of people that find this to be the most frustrating thing about the study of history.

So if the historian is not Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew, who is he/she?

Stay tuned to find out...

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Third Parties: Not Just for Canadians and Germans

I apologize for my careless lack of updates. I have been circulating ideas and have come up with a couple. I try to keep these posts from being about myself, but I will inform you as to how I come to write the posts. Today's post comes from a common theme that comes up when I find myself in conversations regarding politics. Often, when people learn that I usually vote for a third party candidate in elections, they say something to this effect: "You're ("your" if they type it on facebook, but that's another matter) throwing your vote away!" The common assumption is that America's is an irreversible two-party system. Having heard that for years upon years, I decided to do some fact checking.

My focus for this post is on the past 100 years of presidential elections in order to avoid skewing the data with elections from the earliest American elections. In the 25 elections I looked at (starting with 1912), there have been 5 significant examples of a third party candidate making a significant impact on the election, a couple even making a good run for the office.

Important Electoral Gains


In the election of 1924, Robert M. La Follette, Sr., a senator from Wisconsin, left the Republican Party for the Progressive Party. La Follette was disappointed with the two major candidates - he believed both the Democrat (John W. Davis) and Republican (Calvin Coolidge) were too conservative. He polled well with Labor Unions and progressives, receiving over 16% of the popular vote (nearly 5,000,000 votes), but only won his home state of Wisconsin, thus receiving 13 electoral votes.


The 1948 Democratic National Convention saw the passage of a newly minted platform that included Civil Rights planks. Angered by this, a number of southern delegates, including then-governor of South Carolina Strom Thurmond, left the party and formed their own "States' Rights" Democratic Party - also known as the "Dixiecrats." The Dixiecrats did not expect to win the election, but rather hoped to create a stalemate, sending the election to the House with the hopes that they could use their electoral votes as bargaining chips for pushing their segregation policies. They, like almost everyone else, underestimated the popularity of Harry S. Truman, who famously defeated Thomas E. Dewey. When all was said and done, Strom Thurmond had received only 2.4% of the popular vote (~1.2 million votes), but took four states and one of Tennessee's electors (39 total electoral votes).


Twenty years later saw a very similar situation. Rejected by the mainstream Democrats for his pro-segregationist views (views he would later reject), Alabama governor George Wallace formed his own political party, the American Independent Party. Wallace also hoped to push his views by sending the election to the House. Richard Nixon, however, won enough electoral votes to carry the election. Wallace finished with 13.5% of the popular vote (9.9 million votes) and carried 5 states for a total of 46 electoral votes.

Ross Perot and the Popular Vote


1992 pitted incumbent George H.W. Bush against up and coming Democrat Bill Clinton. Frustrated with the federal deficit, national debt, and the increase in "professional politicians," Texas billionaire Ross Perot decided to fund his own independent candidacy. Perot connected so well with the American people that a poll taken in June showed Perot ahead of both Bush and Clinton, polling at 39% of voter support. Perot briefly ended his candidacy in July, only to return several weeks later. This odd move hurt Perot in the polls (he was later to blame Republican operatives for brief pullout). When all was said and done, Perot had received zero electoral votes. He had, however, won nearly 19% of the popular vote (19.7 million votes nation-wide). As a result, Clinton was the only candidate to win over 40% of the popular vote (a very rare occurrence).

Four years later, Perot would run again, this time receiving 8.4% of the popular vote (8 million votes)

"Strong as a Bull Moose"


This is the preeminent election for third party proponents. Progressive Republicans rejected the Republican National Convention's nomination of incumbent William Howard Taft. They formed their own Progressive Party and nominated former president Teddy Roosevelt. As is to be expected when a party splits, the remaining unified party won the election, making Woodrow Wilson president of the United States. It was not, however, Taft and his Republican Party who finished second. Rather, Teddy Roosevelt's brand new Progressive Party took the silver in the 1912 election. Additionally, a fourth party - the Socialist Party of America - won a sizable amount of the popular vote.

When the dust had settled, the 1912 election finished thusly:

Woodrow Wilson - 435 electoral votes, 6.3 million popular votes (41.8%)

Teddy Roosevelt - 88 electoral votes, 4.1 million popular votes (27.4%)

William Howard Taft - 8 electoral votes, 3.5 million popular votes (23.2%)

Eugene V. Debs (Socialist) - 0 electoral votes, 901,551 popular votes (6%)

As I hope to have showed, third parties have not always been in the background of American presidential elections. In fact, they have played major roles in elections and have even made their own legitimate runs at the presidency. They made a difference and didn't consider their work part of a throwaway vote.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Life's Little Institutionalized Ironies

This week I decided to write something on a lighter note. As some of you may know, I am a huge fan of what I like to call "Life's Little Institutionalized Ironies." Most of them are, in fact, ironic (I try not to Alanis Morissette the word "ironic"); I do admit that I place some items whose irony is in dispute in the category as well. Having said that, here are a few of my favorites (in no particular order):

Andrew Jackson and US Legal Tender
Andrew Jackson (7th president of the United States/Spanish Ouster/British Fighter-offer/Native Relocator/All-around Bad-Ass), in one of his more belligerent moments, vetoed the re-chartering of the Second National Bank of the United States. The Bank was up for re-chartering in 1832 and Congress sent the bill to Jackson for approval. Jackson vetoed the charter and, in 1833, removed federal money from the National Bank. The charter ran out and the Bank was no more. At the end of his presidency, Jackson also warned against the use of paper money (he preferred the use of actual gold over a slip of paper redeemable for gold). However, in 1928, Andrew Jackson was chosen as the new face of the twenty dollar bill. It is as if the Federal Reserve were giving a huge middle finger to Andrew Jackson, and I am convinced that he rolls in his grave every time a twenty dollar bill changes hands.

The Pulitzer Prize
Joseph Pulitzer was a Hungarian-born American known most notably for his work in the newspaper business (and as the antagonist in the beloved musical "Newsies"). Pulitzer is known in historical circles for his contribution (read role as co-founder) of early 20th century Yellow Journalism. In his bid to sell more newspapers, Pulitzer often sensationalized stories, using a variety of techniques regarding paper layout, story selection, etc. It has been said that Pulitzer is partly responsible for US entrance into war with Spain. This is an exaggeration, though more because his papers were not circulated outside of NYC, rather than for lack of trying. Pulitzer's stories often chose emotion over accuracy. Later on in his life, he is said to have become a more reputable editor. His role in Yellow Journalism is still felt today, over a century later. Thus, the irony that journalism's most coveted prize is named after a man who sensationalized the news in order to sell more papers.

The Eighteenth and Twenty-first Amendments
Note: This last one isn't all that ironic, I just find it amusing.
The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States prohibits the manufacture, sale, and transportation (including importation) of any intoxicating beverages within the borders of the United States. It was passed in 1919 and went into effect in 1920. Several years later, the people of the United States decided that Prohibition was not such a great idea after all. The problem comes with the fact that a Constitutional Amendment cannot be removed. Therefore, in 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment was ratified, which stated that the Eighteenth Amendment was thus repealed and the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol was once again legal. As a result, according to the Constitution of the United States, the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol is both illegal and legal (though its legality supersedes its illegality).

Those are a few of the more memorable institutionalized ironies/oddities. I hope you enjoyed and I hope you find a few of your own!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Ethno-religio-linguistic Mash-up Mix-'em-up

I decided to drop some more truth-bombs regarding common-held misconceptions. Today's ideas came to me after reading some of the media reports regarding President Obama's trip to the Middle East, specifically his speech in Cairo.

Many news outlets reported that Obama used the common "Muslim greeting, As-Salamu Alaykum." Every single article I read and news program I watched used this phrase. The problem is that this is not a Muslim salutation, but rather an Arab greeting. Granted, the majority of the Arab world is Muslim, but Christian Arabs also greet each other with this same phrase. Translated, it means "Peace be upon you." This is no different from the "peace" greeting common in Roman Catholicism and the Anglican Communion ("peace be with you").

Along these same lines, it is often said that Allah is the God of Islam. Strictly speaking, this is not correct. In fact, Allah is the Arab word for "God." Arab Christians, Jews, and Muslims all call God Allah. This Western misunderstanding would be akin to people from another country saying "God" is the English word for the Christian God.

These instances (among others) have led me to two observations.

The first is that we have a tendency to oversimplify cultures, blurring the lines between Ethnic groups, religions, and language families. Rather than attempting to better understand the differences and similarities between them all, it is easier to make them all one thing. Rather than learning about Persians, Arabs, Kurds, Sunni, Shia, Farsi, and Arabic, we lump it all together under "The Middle East" or "Islam" and call it a day. We do this regardless of the fact that, within our own country, we have a seemingly infinite diversity of such categories. How much more complicated should we consider it in a region with several nations?

The second is an unfortunate trend in certain journalistic outlets that perpetuate these cultural misunderstandings. It is easier to call a phrase Muslim than to actually look up the phrase itself and give it its proper place. I'm not sure where the source of this problem is. Perhaps it is our constant demand for instant news that forces rushed, and therefore careless, reports. Maybe it is an unfortunate lackadaisical streak in some journalists' fact-checking. It is also possible that we are so comfortable in our own ignorance that we blissfully turn a blind eye to factual inaccuracy in favor of accepting what is fed us.

This is not an invective against modern journalism. Rather, it is a lament that we ("we," because I, too, fall into this trap) do not put forth more effort into understanding the amazing complexities our world presents us. Life seems so much more interesting to me when I give my time in the attempt to comprehend the subtle nuances that distinguish similar - but no less distinct - cultures, ethnic groups, religions, language patterns, etc.

It's a trip and a half.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Leave Here" or How Reading Dante Can Counter Modern Chronographo-prejudices

My apologies for the verbosity of the title of this entry. Consider it practice for when I begin publishing articles and writing books.

Don't worry, this won't be as mentally rigorous as the title may suggest. I wouldn't be a graduate of the Baylor Honors College if I didn't write something about Dante. That's just how it works.

After reading Dante’s Divine Comedy, I became keenly aware that within the Comedy are counter-arguments to many of our pre-conceived notions of how things worked in medieval thought.

For example, we are often told that the adherents of Christianity and Islam have always held an intense hatred for each other from the very beginning. The Crusades are often used as the primary example of this idea. As a result, I find it very interesting that Saladin is given a place among the virtuous pagans; men like Socrates and Plato. In fact, there are a number of medieval accounts roughly contemporary with Saladin’s time that are quite complementary of the kind of person Saladin was, despite the fact that he was a Muslim enemy.

Dr. Wood (Baylor University professor) pointed out to a class of his that Dante includes a man who committed suicide in Purgatory. I find this enormously interesting. Inferno seemed to have taken care of all suicides, which was widely condemned as the elusive “unforgivable sin.” Yet Cato, who committed suicide rather than see the Roman Republic fall, is named as the last denizen of Purgatory to be purged of his sins and granted access to Paradise. All too often we assume that “doctrine” and “dogma” (veritable four-letter words in our modern culture) were set in stone and left no room for debate or furthered understanding. Cato’s presence in Purgatory seems to refute this.

Finally, I find it insulting to the Ancients and Medievals that we teach our children that, until Christopher Columbus, all people thought the world was flat. I could point to Greek writers to disprove this, but I will stick with the Dante theme I have already established. It is clear that Dante has a clear idea of a spherical world. Mount Purgatory is on the opposite side of the world from Jerusalem. Dante’s entire conception of space in Inferno and Purgatory depends on a round earth.

Dante is replete with examples of the vitality and creativity of the Medievals. These are just a few of the examples that stand out to me. Perhaps the problem is that the only people exposed to these ideas are upper-level university students.

It is a shame that we ignore these facts in favor of an “historical” account that discredits all civilizations before the 15th century as the village idiots of human existence.

But that, my friends, is a subject for another day.

The Beginning of Something (mildly) Special

As the title of my newly crafted blog implies, I plan on recording random musings, thoughts, incidences, plans, and other cerebral excesses. Rarely will I follow a set pattern. Feel free to peruse at your own leisure (please read that like "pleasure" rather than "lee-zhur"... the former pronunciation makes me feel fancier). My feelings will not be hurt if you decide to forgo devoting any significant amount of your day to reading my public thoughts/insights/rants.

Shall we begin?