Sunday, August 26, 2007

Who's Your Daddy?

It's an intriguing question, and not just because this is the Red Sox nation and we are locked in another struggle for the pennant with the dreaded Yankees in the final weeks of the season.

In one case, at least (well, three that we did not know about), the answer is James Brown. Turns out that the "Godfather of Soul" was also, as a New York Times reporter put it, a "Father Many Times Over." "Both fans and lawyers have been hard-pressed to keep up with the revelations concerning his multiple marriages and offspring (legitimate or other).

In another case, it's the czar. In August,
An archaeologist in Yekaterinburg, the city where the royal Romanov family was imprisoned and then murdered, said clues left by a leader of the family’s assassins had led investigators to a makeshift grave where they found the possible remains of the czar’s son, Aleksei, and one of his daughters.

The remains were of persons of the appropriate sex and age, and scientists planned to confirm the identification through DNA testing. It may be a tough sell, however, as the report went on to suggest, for no amount of scientific proof will convince some people:
"The leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church has never fully acknowledged that the remains of the czar were discovered in 1991, even though scientists conducted extensive DNA tests, using samples from relatives of the royal family, that appeared to prove their authenticity."

[Aside: The reporter's use of the terms, "murdered" and "assassins," reflects timid modern sensibilities; the proper term should nonetheless be: "executed." When a dynasty claims to rule on the basis of biology--genealogy and genetics--it should come as no surprise that their opponents sometimes choose to end its rule by "biological" means, as well.]

And then, of course, if we're talking about a great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great granddaddy  there was the revelation that Barack Obama is distantly related to President George W. Bush, and via his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great granddaddy, to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Why DNA here? The study of DNA evidence, now familiar from criminal investigations and medical research, has become increasingly prominent in the historical field, as well. Its application in historical forensics (as in the case of the Romanov family) and the pursuit of individual genealogical history--popularized, for example, in the PBS television series on "African American Lives" (two installments, 2006, 2008)--has probably garnered the most attention. However, it is arguably most intriguing and productive when used to investigate "deep" history and the patterns of human evolution. The micro- and macrohistorical applications alike are moreover coming to play an ever greater, but by no means unproblematic, role in debates over ethnic and cultural identity. As a result, both aspects of the question will receive regular coverage here.

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James Brown Update, November 2007:
As the New York Times Notes on the News reports:
A few months ago, trustees for Mr. Brown’s estate revealed that DNA testing has turned up at least three adult children, born out of the wedlock, who have filed for a piece of the estate even though they are not named in his will, which was drafted in 2000.

The heirs he did name in his will, furious over being left a rather meager inheritance of “personal items” they say amount to his “pots and pans,” have filed a lawsuit against the estate.

James Brown Update, July 2008:
The saga continues (although the reporter's attempt to employ the metaphors of twisting and tangling itself becomes contorted): "Like the tangled knot that was the life of the flamboyant Mr. Brown, who had multiple wives, consorts, children and grandchildren, some with unproven paternity, his estate is also in a twist." On 9 July, "a state appeals court judge in South Carolina approved a surprise request by the two former business managers" to halt Christie's auction of his possessions.

Obama update (March 2008), "The Candidates As Cousins Much Removed":
Next time you're considering whether to run for president, don't forget to weigh the value of the fast and free genealogical research that comes with candidacy, guaranteed to uncover your ancestral connection to a modern-day celebrity -- or at least a minor historical figure.

Turns out that Obama is in addition related to Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman, and James Madison--as well as Brad Pitt. The article also mentions the ancestry of Hillary Clinton and John McCain. In case you were wondering, it helpfully adds, "Genealogical data, experts caution, should not be used by voters to evaluate a candidate." (To be sure. But could it be any worse than the method by which they made their choice in 2004?).

Romanov update, April 2008: "Scientific tests have confirmed that bones found last year in Russia belong to the two missing children of Tsar Nicholas II, Russian officials say."

Taste Test

What in the world were advertisers in New Zealand thinking when they promoted the "Hell" pizza firm with a billboard of Hitler?

Well, this:

"[We] thought that people would be able to see a funny side to a guy doing a 'sieg heil' salute with a piece of pizza in his hand,"Kirk MacGibbon of the Auckland-based Cinderella advertising agency said.
Naturally, this has been a feast for the blogosphere.

Naturally, virtually all the reports go on to note that the pizza company has a reputation for going out of its way to shock people: earlier mailing out condoms to promote the "lust" pizza in its "seven deadly sins" series, and now promising to replace the Hitler billboards with one of Pope Benedict and a quotation from him about heaven and hell.

Naturally, the advertiser has a pseudo-high-minded excuse (in addition to: "like, well, we had no idea..."):
"If you laugh at something, you take its power away." However he added that "there are certain things we are still unable to laugh about" and said there had been a handful of complaints from Jewish residents.
read more

In another report, he grudgingly acknowledged:

"We do recognise there were some horrendous things done and if people are not seeing it as lampooning, we are dealing with a slightly different animal and we will back down."

This of course is facile and cynical argumentation that by definition justifies anything and everything and shifts the blame from the offender to the offended. The pizza scandal is in itself trivial, but MacGibbon inadvertently points to a serious question: Just when does something tragic become an appropriate vehicle for humor? Is it just a matter of the passage of time and relaxing of sensibilities? How many days or weeks passed before jokes about the "Challenger" disaster could be told in good company? In that case, I would wager, the gallows humor was the frustrated reaction to the media exploitation of the tragedy and the utter banality and sanctimoniousness of most popular discourse. The much-discussed "end of irony" didn't last long after 9-11 (1, 2), though we still don't tell jokes about the victims. When can we expect a burning cross and the hooded figure of a Ku Klux Klansman to show up in an advertisement for barbecue products?

The playwright Rolf Hochhuth reflected on a related problem in the "Sidelights on History" that he appended to his play, The Deputy (Der Stellvertreter; 1963), which caused a worldwide scandal when it accused the Vatican of silence during the Holocaust. Presciently prophesying the attempted canonization of Pope Pius XII, he worried that, with the passage of time, cynical or brutal rulers would increasingly come to be appreciated as “great men,” their sins forgotten or relativized. If today many admire Napoleon, could Hitler be far behind? he asked. Nearly half a century later, no respectable voices have taken that fateful step. One is entitled to wonder which is worse, though: to see “greatness” or humor instead of crime?

That some will joke about cruelty and inhumanity is inevitable. That others should call them to account is necessary. It’s not about political correctness or humorlessness. It’s about maintaining a certain moral seriousness and intellectual restraint.

One is left wondering why the popular culture so often and readily dips into the well of historical tragedy in search of raw material. Lack of imagination is no doubt one reason.


Clio, the Muse of History, after the sculptural relief by Bertel Thorwaldsen (1770-1844)

This blog represents a combination of longstanding professional and personal interests. Although I am a professional historian, it is not concerned primarily with academic history teaching and research, as such. Rather, because historical topics regularly crop up in the traditional news media, and now on the internet, and because historical allusions and analogies form an integral part of our political and cultural discourse, the aim is to follow the evolving dialogue between the scholarly and popular domains.

To begin with, it is worth noting which topics are deemed worthy of general coverage. In the case of television’s History Channel, for example, war and religion seem to predominate (to the extent that it has not simply and bizarrely reallocated its air time to barely or non-historical topics such as dangerous jobs). Further, we may ask whether the media (old and new) succeed in their avowed aim of distilling and more widely disseminating complex new information. To what extent does popularization entail a narrowing of scope or distortion of content, loss of complexity?

It should be emphasized: To ask the question is not necessarily to assume a pessimistic answer, at least to the extent that the nature of the media, as such, is at issue. These questions are not new ones. As I have suggested elsewhere, many of the more misguided complaints about the internet and blogosphere today echo the charges raised against newspapers and journals two centuries ago and derive from similar cultural biases and ideological needs.

The historical allusions that non-historians employ in other contexts pose a different, arguably greater challenge, for they have a dual impact, both objective and evocative. To make a historical analogy is to make a statement about our values and ways of reasoning, and the nature of that choice can open up or close off conversation, clarify or cloud our thinking—often with fateful consequences. This is why comparisons with Nazism are often so problematic. A case in point is the lessons that politicians presumed to draw from the experience of “appeasement” during the interwar years. Anthony Eden and the British government, concluding that Gamal Abdul Nasser was the next Hitler, seized the Suez Canal by force in 1956, only to find that their actions, far from preserving British dominance of the region, instead effectively ended it. The Cold War belief in the “domino theory,” which led the United States into the débâcle of Vietnam, is even more familiar. The examples could be multiplied. (Two decades ago, Richard Neustadt and Ernest R. May of the Kennedy School addressed these themes in a political-managerial context in their Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers.)

One of the simultaneously most challenging and rewarding aspects of academia is teaching students to think historically: that is, to approach each topic as at once distinctive and situated in a wider flow of phenomena and events, to be able to see similarities and differences alike. To begin with, one has to overcome the erroneous belief (fear) that history is about mere names and dates (as if these in themselves were worthy of serious study). In place of that simplistic and empty notion one can scarcely do better than to recommend the simple definition of the pioneering French historian Marc Bloch, who in the now-classic The Historian's Craft called history “the science of men . . . in time.” What he meant was that we explore the unfolding of human nature in varying chronological, geographical, and cultural settings. Time, he said, is not simply “a measurement.”

The historian does not think of the human in the abstract. His thoughts breathe freely the air of the climate of time. . . . .
Historical time is a concrete and living reality with an irreversible onward rush. It is the very plasma in which events are immersed, and the field within which they become intelligible . . . .
Now, this real time is, in essence, a continuum. It is also perpetual change. The great problems of historical inquiry derive from the antitheses of these two attributes.

One of the most satisfying attempts to impart some of the lessons of continuity, context, and comparison occurred early in my career around the time of the first Gulf War over Kuwait. I happened to be teaching about the appeasement of the Nazis and Italian Fascists in the 1930s. My own views on the matter were very clear: Appeasement represented one of the greatest moral failures and strategic miscalculations of modern times. At the same time, I wanted students to know that historians need be able to understand the mentalities of all the historical actors (though to understand is not to excuse): to remember that, in 1938, without the benefit of our hindsight, the necessary point of reference was 1918 and not 1945; to understand why the trauma of the trenches led many decent, intelligent leaders and citizens to believe that virtually anything was preferable to another continental war; to understand why even experienced politicians and sophisticated thinkers failed to grasp that fascist regimes were qualitatively different from others; and then to understand how the Nazis shrewdly exploited these hopes and fears to the fullest. I also wanted them to understand that even like-minded people sometimes looked at the same evidence and drew radically different conclusions: Some “progressive” thinkers concluded that the only proper response to war and dictatorship was diplomacy or pacifism, while others rushed to Spain to take up the fight.

The students were doing very well with the material. At the end of the unit, I screened a powerful documentary about the Munich Agreement of 1938, and the cynical betrayal of Czechoslovakia by her erstwhile British and French allies. In the final scenes, as subdued passages from Smetana’s “Má Vlast” played in the background, Nazi troops proceed to occupy a snowy Prague, making a mockery of the promise of “peace in our time” half a year earlier. Immediately afterwards, one student approached me with a question. She had been deeply moved by the class unit and the film, and wanted to know more about the topic. She also wanted to know what lessons she was supposed to draw.

“It was so terrible,” she said. “They should not have let that happen.” She paused.
“But,” she continued, with some nervousness, “If I am against this, does that mean that I have to be for war against Iraq?”

“Not necessarily, I replied.” “But you owe it to yourself to ask that question—and then to think very carefully before answering it.”

To this day, I do not know what decision she reached, but I do know that, unlike many, old and young, she took the time to interrogate both the evidence and her own preconceptions, and that is all that one can ask. When one watches a young citizen and an evolving intellect wrestle with the complexity of moral and political choices and realizes that she has gained an insight to carry with her in the years to come—on days such as that, one has the feeling that the practice of the profession is its own reward.