Archive for the ‘Humanities’ Category

Bad History Matters

David Barton’s book “The Jefferson Lies” is a New York Times bestseller. It was also recently voted “the least credible history book in print.” The book has been widely panned by real historians, but still it sells and sells.

David Maraniss, an Associate Editor of The Washington Post, is just out with a completely sourced, deeply researched reporting job called “Barack Obama: The Story.” Maraniss, a Pulitzer winner for his reporting on Bill Clinton, has written a shelf full of fine books on Clinton, Al Gore, Roberto Clemente and Vince Lombardi, among other subjects. He’s a pro and turning to the footnotes in his books tells you all you need to know about how seriously he takes the research that is the super structure of his reporting.

Yet, Maraniss’ book, well-reviewed and critically praised, hasn’t broken through as a big seller. For that book on Obama you’ll need to turn to Edward Klein’s book “The Amateur,” which has been on the Times bestseller lists for weeks despite the fact that is based on anonymous sources and little real reporting.

Klein’s highly-critical polemic about the President is nevertheless outselling Maraniss’ even-handed, yet critical biography. Actually, outselling is an understatement. Klein’s book has sold 137,000 copies and the Maraniss book has sold 19,000.

Garbage sells seems to be the lesson.

Part of the explanation for the sales success of Klein’s Obama book is the still apparently widespread notion that major elements of the President’s life – his religion and his birth, for example  - are phony, made up, invented. Maraniss picks through his pile of conspiracy and myth making and concludes that the real frauds and fabricators are those, like Klein, who keep repeating the lies, inventing new ones and passing it off as history.

Same goes with Barton’s book about Jefferson in which he concocts the story that Jefferson’s real beliefs about God and the place of religion in our public life have somehow been hidden all these years. Rather than believing in a strict separation of religion and government, Barton would have us believe Jefferson was really “an Orthodox Christian.”

As distinguished religion scholar Dr. Martin Marty points out a “real”
historian of the American founding, Gordon Wood, had this to say about Jefferson:  ”It’s easy to believe in the separation of church and state when one has nothing but scorn for all organized religion. That was the position of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s hatred of the clergy and established churches knew no bounds. He thought that members of the ‘priestcraft’ were always in alliance with despots against liberty. For him the divine Trinity “was nothing but ‘Abracadabra’ and ‘hocus-pocus’. . . Ridicule, he said, was the only weapon to be used against it.”

Barton and Klein write what they pass off as history in order to advance a cause and, of course, to sell books with the help of Glenn Beck and others with a political or religious agenda. It’s a free country and we do have a First Amendment after all, but what they do is not history and to pass it off as such is also a fraud.

One of the great and pressing problems with our politics is the inability of too many people to agree on even the most fundamental facts. How can we fix out-of-control federal spending unless we agree on what is causing it? Is it some of the lowest real tax rates in history? Or runaway spending on entitlements? Or both?

Is climate change real? Is the Earth warming and, if so, has man contributed? What to do?

The beginning of solving problems is to agree on at least a few fundamental facts. Silly books that pretend to report history don’t help, nor do book sellers like Barnes and Noble and Amazon who treat phony history like we should really take it seriously.

Next time you’re browsing for a new read check out the cover, of course, but then turn to the back before you buy. Has the author really sourced the book? Do the footnotes, if there are any, pass the smell test? Is there a bibliography, meaning that the author consulted other books on his subject? Are sources named? Does the writer have an obvious agenda?

If you want to read fiction, you should, but don’t fall for fiction that passes itself off as history. There is too much good and important history being written to let the frauds and fabricators make all the sales.

 

Calvin Trillin

Deadline Poet, Funny Guy, Serious Reporter

Calvin Trillin has covered the civil rights movement, produced some of the best long form journalism in recent times for The New Yorker, and written about food, travel and politics.

And oh, yes, he just may be the funniest guy in print in America. He’s coming to Boise next week.

Here is one of Trillin’s latest “Deadline Poems” from the Nation magazine.

Newt’s Surge

The pundits all can confidently speak

Of Gingrich as the flavor of the week.

The people who want anyone but Mitt

Now say, in desperation, Newt is it.

Yes, Newt’s astute – a crafty wheeler-dealer.

His baggage, though, would fill an eighteen-wheeler -

Affairs and ethics problems and, to boot,

His mouth is something often he’ll shoot.

And if he’s scratched because he lacks decorum?

What happens then? Get ready, Rick Santorum.

 

Trillin will present the Idaho Humanities Council’s 15th annual Distinguished Lecture in the Humanities on December 8 at the Boise Centre. Tickets are still available.

Trillin’s humor may be his trademark, but his body of work is truly impressive, including one of his U.S. Journal pieces for the New Yorker written from Boise in 1979. His little book on his late wife – About Alice - will have you laughing on one page and tearing up on the next. It is one of the sweetest pieces of writing you will ever hope to read.

Trillin relates the story of first meeting Alice at a party and pursuing her to another party days later.

“At the second party, I did get to talk to her quite a lot. … Recalling that party in later years, Alice would sometimes say, ‘You have never again been as funny as you were that night.’

“ ‘You mean I peaked in December of 1963?’ I’d say, 20 or even 30 years later.

“ ‘I’m afraid so.’ ”

Many of Trillin’s essays on food are classics of the genre. He once said: “The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.”

He completely subscribes to the sensible notion that the higher the restuarant the more mediocre and costly the food. “I never eat in a restaurant that’s over a hundred feet off the ground and won’t stand still,” he says.

Trillin was Johnny Carson’s guest 30 times on the old Tonight Show and he’s a semi-regular now on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show.

If you want some fun in the company of an American original, order up a dose of Calvin Trillin next week. His latest book – Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin- is a collection of pieces dating back 40 years. It’s funny, profound, literary – all quite like Calvin Trillin.

 

A Little History

Idaho in the Age of McCarthy

Edward R. Murrow famously said of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy that he had not created the fear of Communism that swept the nation after World War II but that McCarthy “had merely exploited it, and rather successfully.” Joe McCarthy had lots of help in Idaho.

Next week the Idaho Humanities Council hosts its annual summer institute for teachers at the College of Idaho in Caldwell and Joe McCarthy is on the agenda. Nearly 40 Idaho teachers will spend the week in an intensive, multi-disciplinary look at the age that still carries the name of the junior senator from Wisconsin – McCarthyism. The Institute’s title: “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been…Fear, Suspicion and Incivility in Cold War America.”

On Tuesday evening, July 26th, I’ll have the pleasure of presenting a talk on Idaho’s politics in the early 1950′s that will focus on McCarthy’s best friend in the Senate, Idaho Sen. Herman Welker, and the Idaho politician who most suffered the guilt by association and out-and-out smears that defined much of the age, Idaho Sen. Glen Taylor.

My talk – drawing upon the nicknames of both Idaho Senators – is entitled “The Singing Senator and Little Joe from Idaho.” The event is scheduled for 7:00 pm at the College of Idaho’s Langroise Recital Hall. My talk is one of several during the week. You can check the full schedule at the IHC website.

I’m going to make the case that Welker and Taylor, a very conservative Republican and a very liberal Democrat, were the two most controversial political figures in the state’s history. They both came of age in the dawn of the Cold War and each flamed out as McCarthyism began to diminish as a political force. Between these two flamboyant men, one a rough, tough former University of Idaho athlete, the other a homespun, charismatic country music performer, the space was created that was necessary to allow the 32-year-old Frank Church to win a seat in the United States Senate and stay there for 24 years.

If you’re interested in Idaho political history and particularly how the McCarthy period in the early 1950′s influenced the political development of Idaho, you should plan to attend some of the events next week in Caldwell.

Other speakers include Nicholas Thompson, Senior editor of The New Yorker, who has written a fine book on his grandfather, Cold Warrior Paul Nitze a great foreign policy hawk, and George Kennan, one of the great figures in 20th Century American diplomacy. Thompson speaks Sunday night, July 24th.

Ellen Schrecker, Professor of History at Yeshiva University, speaks on Wednesday, July 27th. Professor Schrecker is one of the foremost historians of the Cold War period and has written extensively on McCarthy.

And Idaho native F. Ross Peterson speaks on Thursday, July 28th on McCarthy’s influence on politics across the Mountain West. Dr. Peterson is the author of a great book on Sen. Taylor.

One of the enduring lessons of the McCarthy period, a lesson we continue to struggle with as a nation, is the confusion, as Murrow so eloquently said in 1954, of dissent with disloyalty. Idaho was fertile ground for Red Baiting in the 1950′s. The charge of being “soft on Communism” or entertaining thoughts even slightly out of the mainstream could be enough to torpedo a political career. Making the charge against an opponent, on the other hand, was a proven strategy to advance a career.

The years when Joe McCarthy was a dominate figure in American politics are not among prettiest chapters of our history, but the period is one worth revisiting, understanding and evaluating in the never ending quest to create “a more perfect Union.”

 

 

Survey Says

Don’t Know Much About…Us

I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to travel a fair amount – Europe several times, South America, Canada – and after every trip I’ve returned thinking its good to be home, but man we sure don’t know much about the rest of the world.

I remember a trip to Canada a few years ago and engaging in serious conversation with friendly Canadians who seemed to be up on everything happening in the USA from our politics to popular culture. By contrast, most Americans couldn’t find Saskatoon with a GPS device let alone name the Canadian Prime Minister – Stephen Harper – or that the national capitol is Ottawa, not Montreal or Toronto.

Now it turns out we don’t know much about ourselves, either. Newsweek has surveyed 1,000 Americans on the most basic details of our history, government and politics. We flunked. Badly.

The questions aren’t exactly PhD level, either, but are questions that are asked in the official U.S. citizenship test. Questions like: What happened at the Constitutional Convention? How could 65% of those surveyed not know that the Founders wrote the U.S. Constitution at the Constitutional Convention?

Or, how about this. Fully 88% in the survey couldn’t name one person who authored the Federalist Papers. Hint: his wife’s name was Dolley, as in Madison. Maybe those 65% know her donuts and cakes better. And, don’t ask what the Federalist Papers were.

I’ve railed in this space in the past about America’s historical ignorance, but 29% not being able to name the current vice president or 73% not know why we “fought” the Cold War. This isn’t funny. It is worrying.

Newsweek blames several factors for American ignorance, including a generally complex political system that unlike Europe tends to spread control among local, state and federal governments. I guess this is confusing and there is much to keep track of, but that hardly seems an excuse for the fundamental lack of knowledge exposed in the survey.

The decentralized education system gets some blame. What we teach in Idaho they might not teach in Maryland. Some of the blame should go, I think, to those who have de-emphasized history, social studies and the humanities in favor of science and math. Kids need it all, in big doses.

And there is the income and media reality. A growing percentage of Americans are poor, not of the middle class. Poorer Americans have less access to information and knowledge. In Europe, where a larger share of the population lives in the middle, people are generally better educated and much more knowledgeable about their politics and government.

The mass media is both part of the problem and could offer a slice of the solution, but we mostly have a pure market driven media that features much more American Idol than Meet the Press. It is, after all, difficult to take politics seriously when so much of it is trivialized over the air and on the web.

The Newsweek analysis concludes, and maybe this is the good news, “the problem is ignorance, not stupidity.“ One expert who has studied this American ignorance says, “we suffer from a lack of information rather than a lack of ability.”

The real problem here isn’t knowing James Madison authored many of the Federalist Papers, it is not knowing enough – as the current budget debate in Washington, D.C. makes so clear – about our federal government and our political system. It’s impossible to assess, for example, what must be done to fix the budget if we have no idea how the government spends and taxes.

Survey after survey says Americans want Congress to cut the budget by reducing foreign aid and by stamping out that old standby waste, fraud and abuse. At the same time they say whatever you do don’t touch Social Security or Medicare where the real money gets spent. Too many politicians pander this ignorance and we get the endless debates we now witness in Congress.

Simple fact: Americans need information and real knowledge to make sense of their government and then they must care enough to act on the knowledge. Ignorance isn’t a strategy for a great country.

Symbolic Cuts

burnsMinimal Money, Real Impact

Noted documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has waded into the fray over eliminating federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and sharply reducing the measly dollars we spend on the national endowments for the humanities and the arts.

In a piece in the Washington Post, Burns – his Civil War documentary may be the best long-form television ever – asks us to remember that during the Great Depression somehow the country found the dollars to support artists, writers and photographers who produced some of the most enduring work of the 20th Century. Surely, he says, we can afford a fraction of a cent of our federal tax dollar for CPB and the endowments.

In the interest of full disclosure, loyal readers need to know I have a strong bias here. I cut my journalism teeth years ago with a daily half-hour broadcast on public television. I have volunteered for 15 years on various boards dedicated to the mission of the public humanities and the bringing of thoughtful programs on American and world culture, history, literature, religion and philosophy to Idahoans and Americans. I’m a true believer in these well established and minimally funded institutions and I also understand the federal budget.

The $420 million we spend on CPB, almost all of which goes to local public TV and radio stations and programs like those Ken Burns makes, and the $168 million we spend on each of the endowments is a total drop in the federal budget bucket. The Pentagon spends that much in an afternoon.

Case in point, Boeing just got an award from the Defense Department to build a new generation of aerial tankers – price tag $35 billion. Assuming Boeing builds a full fleet of 179 tankers, that averages out to about $195 million per plane. That buys a whole lot of what the endowments and CPB provide Americans.

I know, I know, we need new aerial tankers to replace those in service since Eisenhower was in the White House, but don’t we also need a place – for a tiny fraction of the cost – where Ken Burns’ documentaries reach a huge audience or where the humanities endowment supports a local museum or library?

Congress and the president continue the gandy dance around the real need to address the federal budget deficit. We have a crisis in three areas – defense spending, Medicare and Social Security. We need to address a combination of very difficult tradeoffs. Extend the retirement age, means test Medicare, reduce the size and scope of our military power on every continent and raise taxes. It’s easier to say than to cut, but there you have the real issues.

Anyone who tells you we can address the dismal federal deficit by cutting CPB and the National Endowments is practicing demagoguery on the scope of Huey Long, the subject, by the way, of a Ken Burns’ documentary.

Much of this debate, it must be noted, is about ideology rather than real budget savings. Some conservatives assail public broadcasting or the pointy headed humanities and arts community as the preserve of “liberals.” Nonsense. William F. Buckley found a home on PBS. Were the great man alive today, do you think he could find a place on Fox or CNN? Not a chance. Listen to a week of The NewsHour or Morning Edition and really consider the range of views, opinion and ideology you hear. Public TV and radio have become one of the few real clearinghouses of ideas about the American condition. Not liberal, not conservative, but truly fair and balanced.

America is a country of ideas. We have thrived for as long as we have because we value the big debate, the chance for lots of voices – from Ken Burns to the Red Green Show (on PBS) to the Trailing of the Sheep Festival and a summer teacher institute in Idaho (funded by the Idaho Humanities Council) – to be heard, considered, rejected and embraced.

We must get serious about the federal deficit. We must also recognize that a guy as talented as Ken Burns would never have a chance in the “marketplace media.” A long-form documentary on baseball, jazz, the National Parks or World War II simply won’t find a place in modern commercial broadcasting. So, eliminating that platform is really a decision to eliminate the ideas represented there.

If we lose what a Ken Burns represents, we lose a connection with our history and our culture that simply can’t be replaced. We will regret it, but not as much as our children.

The Importance of Being Borah

borahA Senator Worth Remembering

I’ll be speaking on Wednesday night at the Main Boise Library on the life and career of Idaho’s longest serving U.S. Senator, William E. Borah. That’s him, third from the right, in a photo taken in Sandpoint. I’m going to guess is was in the middle-1920′s.

The Borah talk is one I have put together as part of the Idaho Humanities Council’s Speakers Bureau. I’ll talk about Borah’s career and lasting importance, but also about his view of the Senate in our form of government. Borah was a progressive Republican, somewhat in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, but he was also fiercely independent and more than willing to buck his own party.

I’ve been reading and writing about Borah for a long time. In fact, I began his journey into blogland more than a year ago with a piece on his approach to Supreme Court appointments. I continue to find him a fascinating character. And, of course, there is that business with Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

The Library event is a 7:00 pm in the Main Auditorium. Staff at the Boise Library have also created a great Borah bibliography of books, articles and writings about the man known as “the Lion of Idaho.”