Teaching World War One -
I’ve been teaching World War I this week, so this piece by London-based comprehensive teacher John Blake is especially apropos.
Addressing the first misconception is what started me thinking about all this to begin with. I realised recently that I was teaching the causes of the First World War in almost exactly the same way as they were taught to me 15 years ago, and using almost exactly the same resources and textbooks.
The lack of references in exam syllabuses to assessing historians’ interpretations has tended to mean that this area has gone unchanged, with little engagement with new historiography as it emerges. This is despite significant shifts in the view of academics, most recently represented by Christopher Clark’s magisterial The Sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914.
In theory, college professors are doing what Blake’s calling for: adjusting our lectures and courses in relationship to the latest scholarship. But in practice, I suspect that such adjustments are applied unevenly. As a scholar of the British Empire, comparative slavery/abolition/emancipation, and postemancipation Jamaica, I’m “up-to-date” on the literature relating to aspects of my research, and much less so on various aspects of the broad surveys I teach.
Blake on tensions between history and popular memory:
The First World War was an infinitely more complex historical phenomenon than British popular memory makes it. Instead of being approached with caution and examined - and learned from - as a multilayered event, it has become almost a “fixed point” in the historical calendar, a vision of war not as it was but as we think it should be taught.
This is neither desirable nor wise: it cheapens the contributions of those who served in full knowledge of what their service meant; it makes generals who may have been slow to learn but were ultimately highly effective into callous villains; and it substitutes an easy, allegedly historical lesson for a much harder set of truths.
But what hope is there for football to address race in a nuanced and coherent manner, when the main talking point to come forth last week was the trustworthiness of the player who leaked the story? Even if the morale of the England team was damaged, how does that take precedence over racial inequality? While it’s not the sole responsibility of English football to combat racism, you can’t stand by a narrative which states that racism is no longer an issue on these shores, if you’re not prepared to do the work required. — An issue that isn’t going to die and that will be covered in much more detail in this space.
And then, no history of the sea can be written without precise knowledge of the vast resources of its archives. Here the task would appear to be beyond the powers of an individual historian. There is not one sixteenth-century Mediterranean state that does not possess its charter-room, usually well furnished with those documents that have escaped the fires, sieges, and disasters of every kind known to the Mediterranean world. To prospect and catalogue this unsuspected store, these mines of the purest historical gold, would take not one lifetime but at least twenty or the simultaneous dedication of twenty researchers. Perhaps the day will come when we shall no longer be working on the great sites of history with the methods of small craftsmen. Perhaps on that day it will become possible to write general history from original documents and not from more or less secondary works. Need I confess that I have not been able to examine all the documents available to me in the archives, no matter how hard I tried. This book is the result of a necessarily incomplete study. I know in advance that its conclusions will be examined, discussed, and replaced by others and I am glad of it. That is how history progresses and must progress. —
From Fernand Braudel, “Preface to the First Edition,” The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, 18.
Research takes time. As in: months and often years. Seriously. (*2)
First I have to figure out what sources are available, and which of those sources will be useful. That alone can take several months. I also must sift and sort as I work my way through this phase of the project. Do I want to read newspapers first? Should I look at government documents first? Diaries? Letters?
Then I have to find those sources. They aren’t piled in a neat stack somewhere, waiting for me to leaf through them. If I’m lucky, I’ll find much of it in the university library in the town where I live. If what I need isn’t there, often the library is able to borrow it for me.
But much of the material that historians rely on is stored in special collections: at historical societies, for example, or at specialized libraries, or in the “special collections” departments of research libraries. And must of that stuff can’t be borrowed. Think, for example, original copies of letters or diaries that have not been reproduced in any form. If I want to read them, I have to go to the place where they’re stored. For the beer book, I visited a dozen or so different kinds of repositories located in Milwaukee, Chicago, and St. Louis.
A great deal of the material I use is only be available on microfilm or microfiche. I’ve spent the equivalent of several years of my life sitting at microfilm readers loading reels of film, slowly scanning the film, re-winding the reels, etc. (*3)
These days, and hallelujah!, many (although certainly not all) primary sources have been digitized, and even when sources themselves aren’t, indexes that can help me sort through documents are digital. (*4)
That’s been an extraordinary time saver. Even ten years ago, if I wanted to read up on a topic in, say, American Farmer, a serial published in the 19th century, I had to go read the table of contents from each issue of the magazine. Now? I can search by keyword. (Although I’m not sure if American Farmer has been digitized. But you get the drift.) A timesaver? Ohdeargodinheavenyes.
The downside to digitization, however, is that it’s upped the historian’s ante: Now that so. much. stuff. is available in a way that it was not a decade ago, I fear, as do all historians, that I’ll miss something important. I try to balance that fear with this thought: Even if I miss a source or a fact, I won’t miss the main point or the general thrust. (Still, I’m sure I’m not the only historian who sometimes wakes up in the dark hours thinking “Oh, fuck. What if I’ve missed something!?!?”)
In between reading all those primary documents, whose number is infinite, I’m also reading secondary stuff: Who’s written what that will fill in the gaps in my knowledge and can provide material for background? (See my Hemingway example above.) What have other scholars and experts said about this topic? Does my view jibe with theirs? Am I about to become an intellectual outlier and thus the subject of ridicule? (God forbid.) — And this is only the gathering phase of the process. For the thinking and writing, read the rest of Maureen Ogle’s great explanation of what historians do. For the historians who are professors, add to all of that teaching and committee work.
One of the more historically interesting of the past-present London cityscape juxtapositions created by the Museum of London.
Among the many movements that ended up transforming the United Kingdom during the 1910s and 1920s was suffrage feminism. Those fighting for women to have the right to vote were divided into two large groups, the suffragists and the suffragettes. The suffragists, usually middle-class women, were moderates. They wanted to achieve the vote through the standard and staid political methods of lobbying and petitioning. The suffragettes, on the other hand, were more militant; they turned to more violent methods including window-breaking and arson. Emmeline Pankhurst, seen above under arrest, was the matriarch of the Pankhurst family, the leaders of the suffragettes, at least until 1914, when Emmeline and her daughter Christabel stopped their suffrage protests and became staunch supporters of the British war effort. Their actions furthered a rift in the family as Christabel’s pacifist sisters were dismayed by their mother and sister’s militant patriotism.
The other photo of interest shows some of the damage London sustained during the Blitz. To see how widespread the Blitz bombings were, see this great map of the bomb sites.
Outside a Rugby World Cup final they come no bigger. Rarer still are the days when players leave a dressing room knowing their careers and even lives could be transformed by the time they return. If that sounds a touch fanciful it is precisely what senior members of this British & Irish Lions squad have been telling their younger colleagues. Those fortunate enough to win a Lions series feel a glow which lasts a lifetime.
More than that, they will enjoy a rush of relief, satisfaction and gratitude which transcends the confines of mere sport. If this tour has proved anything already it is that Lions adventures remain gloriously different to anything else. Can you believe the reshuffled, all-important half-back pairing of Jonny Sexton and Ben Youngs will line up having previously spent just 52 competitive minutes together?
Never mind. From deep within comes the faith that anything is still possible. Bottle that spirit and you have the Lion brew, that most potent of amber nectars. Also detectable at the Lions’ final training session amid the eucalyptus trees and suburban calm of Scotch College in Hawthorn was an air of focused confidence and a distinct edge. Every single member of the tour party knows what is coming. An Australian team in a sudden-death situation will always front up physically and history’s lessons also suggest the most brutal of contests. Remember the 2009 second Test against South Africa in Pretoria when Adam Jones, Gethin Jenkins, Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll ended up in the same hospital corridor? The difference this time is that the Lions are 1-0 ahead and firmly braced for whatever heads their way. —
In the year of the Ashes (the Test cricket series between Australia and England), the British & Irish Lions play Australia in rugby.
A research question for future projects: what is the rhyme and reason behind why and when the home nations play as a Great Britain team (and why team GB instead of team UK, given that Northern Ireland is part of these teams) and when they splinter off into independent teams?
The protracted dispute between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands appeared to harden further on Thursday, as the British side dismissed any thought of inviting the new Argentine pope to help mediate, and the Argentines rejected a March referendum that showed the islanders want to remain British.
Both sides made their positions known after an annual meeting of the United Nations Decolonization Committee, which called on Britain and Argentina to negotiate. Britain has said any negotiations must include a representative from the Falklands, a condition rejected by Argentina, which calls the islands, in the South Atlantic, Las Malvinas. —
On the continued dispute between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falklands/Malvinas.
This past semester, I gave an exam in my European imperialism class a few days after Margaret Thatcher died. On this exam, I included a several-part extra credit question about the Falklands. During Fall 2011, when I taught Modern Britain, we watched Nick Broomfield’s slightly odd documentary Tracking Down Maggie. Among other revelations, Broomfield showed how seriously Thatcher took the Falklands conflict, even though looking back now, the whole conflict looks silly and unimportant for those not impacted. It looks especially so to US undergraduates whose childhood and teenage years were all post-9/11. Nevertheless, these last gasps of empire—and the degree to which former empires still cling to their meager smattering of holdings—say a lot about the self-image of these imperial nations.
For a period of months last fall and winter, when I was twenty-nine, my life turned into an implausible movie about being a writer. In January my first novel, Prep—the story of an Indiana girl who goes on scholarship to an elite New England boarding school—was published by Random House. Over the next several weeks Prep became a New York Times best seller, Paramount Pictures optioned the movie rights, and foreign rights were sold in thirteen countries. On one especially surreal day I found myself on the fourteenth floor of the Random House offices in midtown Manhattan, drinking champagne. It was three-thirty in the afternoon.
Maybe the way to say it is not that my life became a movie but that I became a person I would probably have found odious not long before—less because of the book’s content (in such scenarios the book is always peripheral) than because of the supremely cute pink-and-green grosgrain-ribbon belt (embossed, no less) on the book’s jacket, because of the blurbs (so thoughtful and eloquent! so varied and plentiful!), because of the many articles about me in which I made little jokes and told little anecdotes and just generally talked about myself ad nauseam.
Still, I was excited by the thought of no longer having to use air quotes when referring to myself as a “writer” working on a “novel.” But then I learned that Prep wouldn’t be published until January of 2005, which made me both impatient and nervous. I suspect that every writer has had the experience of looking back on work that once seemed perfectly acceptable and feeling appalled. What if, in the intervening eighteen months, I turned against Prep? I wanted it published before I grew enough as a writer to realize how bad it was! — Curtis Sittenfeld on the months before her debut novel Prep was published.
Looking across the seas at political scandals surrounding the likes of Silvio Berlusconi and Jacques Chirac, at match-fixing in Pakistani cricket and Italian football, or claims of tax avoidance on a nationwide scale in Greece, it was said jingoistically for many years that humble Britain could never compete with the explosive corruption scandals that ‘Johnny Foreigner’ seemed to specialise in.
Yet recent British scandals can compete with the best Europe can offer. Besides MPs fiddling their expenses and Jimmy Savile’s history of paedophilia, racing has been hit by Frankie Dettori’s six-month drugs ban, we’ve seen London-based banks Barclays and UBS embarrassed by the Libor rate-fixing scandal, and BAE Systems has been investigated over its arms deals.
The police have become embroiled, too, with Detective Chief Inspector April Casburn jailed for offering to sell information to the now defunct News of the World and evidence of a cover-up on the Hillsborough disaster. And while none of our Prime Ministers have yet had to stand before a court, MPs including Jonathan Aitken and Margaret Moran have been convicted and Neil Hamilton famously lost his libel claim against Mohamed al Fayed over the cash-for-questions affair.
With this weighty list and other cases to examine, it will be claimed…[at a conference called ‘How Corrupt is Britain?’] that corruption has in fact become an everyday part of British national life. — Corruption and British exceptionalism.
For some observers, the Confederations Cup may have a hokey, inauthentic feel — hey, let’s jam a competition into an otherwise quiet summer, fill it with authorized vendor zones, official beer, Sepp Blatter and generally low-stakes soccer — but to view it so cynically means to ignore its charm. It’s short; it’s somewhat inclusive of small, easy-to-love minnows (c’mon, Tahiti!), it’s relaxed and it’s a good chance to see a handful of bigger teams measure themselves on the road to the World Cup.
Started in 1992 as the King Fahd Cup (the first two tournaments were run by the Saudi Arabian FA as a good way to get some top-class opponents to face the national team) and taken over by FIFA since 1997, it has provided some memorable moments, particularly if you’re a U.S. fan.
To put it simply, the tournament may lack some star power but it’s never short of intrigue. With that in mind, let’s predict how the groups might play out.
For almost two years now, I’ve been trying to get my head around soccer. I’m making some progress. I can get invested in international tournaments, and I’m making slow progress watching club-level soccer (not yet having picked a Premier League team is the major obstacle).
[Sidebar: if MLS wants a bigger audience, it’s going to need to have more games on non-subscription channels. I have an extended sports package and still can barely watch one MLS game a week. I could watch more games of Major League Lacrosse than MLS. That’s a problem.]
I’m still struggling to figure out the plan behind what still looks like running and kicking a ball to me. I understand when a goal kick is given versus a corner kick. I understand most of the referee’s hand signals. But I can’t tell the difference between a clean tackle and a foul-inducing one. I know off-ball movement is important, but I can’t really tell why certain people move to certain places. In other words, the strategy behind the running and kicking remains very obtuse to me. But at one point, so did the ball hitting in tennis and the vagaries of the new figure skating judging system; I’ll figure it out eventually.
But I’ve never been able to get my head around the myriad ancillary tournaments. Why does the FA Cup exist alongside the basic Premier League competition? Am I supposed to pay attention to the Europa League? Today another one of these seeming sideshows starts: the Confederations Cup. Here’s how ESPN columnist Roger Bennett describes it:
The Confederations Cup (June 15-30) is the ritual eight-team dry run designed to give the World Cup hosts the chance to iron out any kinks in their stadia and transport systems a year before the big show begins.
Yeah, that makes me real excited. That’s why we watch sports, to identify infrastructure deficiencies. Only after this logistics reminder does Bennett tell us about the event itself.
The tournament pitches the hosts, reigning World Cup holders and six confederation champions (with Italy qualifying as Euro runners-up to World Cup holders Spain) into battle.
I’m not really criticizing Bennett’s journalistic priorities. But it’s hard to see why we should be watching a tournament created to test Brazil’s highway system. More from Bennett:
This is a competition best understood as the opportunity to see a movie’s prequel a year before the blockbuster on which it is based is even released. The 15 days promise to be stuffed full of foreshadowing and subtle backstory-ing.
Though transport and telecommunications networks may still remain unreliable, in-stadia, early ticket sales indicate this should be the most popular Confederations Cup of all time. The passion of Brazilian soccer fans packed into refurbished stadia including Rio’s legendary Maracana should be contagious.
That sounds better. But still: what is the point of all of this? I’ll be watching, but is this a prize that matters? Does it matter to the players themselves? Because if not, why should we care?
On another note, Tahiti, a team made up of teachers and office workers, is the representative of the Oceania Confederation. How cool is that? One week you’re teaching high school science, the next you’re playing Spain in an international tournament.
Oceania Confederation representatives, tiny Tahiti, will hope to provide the tournament’s Bad News Bears moments. Ranked 138th in the world, the Warriors of Steel have only one full-time professional on their squad and will send out a team consisting of salesmen, office workers and school teachers to face Africa Cup of Nations champions Nigeria, World Cup and Euro winners Spain and Copa America holders Uruguay.
Coach Eddy Etaeta harbors no illusions about the magnitude of the task that awaits his team, telling me, “Our wildest dream as a team is to score a goal.
FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, approved a package of reforms meant to address the racism and abuse that permeates international soccer and returned to focus when Kevin Prince Boateng, a Ghanaian midfielder for Italian club AC Milan, walked off the pitch after fans showered him with racial taunts in a friendly match this year. Fans have also targeted Boateng’s teammate, Milan striker Mario Balotelli, and it seems not a month goes by without news of another racial incident at a soccer match somewhere in the world.
FIFA’s efforts face significant challenges, though, and one of them may be that the most common racism isn’t at matches in top-tier leagues like Italy’s Serie A, where Milan plays, or in major international matches.
The question facing FIFA and its continental and domestic federations is whether it can or will apply the same scrutiny to soccer’s lower leagues, which exist as an afterthought for most soccer fans, regulators, and media. Will racism that occurs on the dusty fields and in the empty “stadiums” that play host to those matches be noticed, monitored, and punished the same way it will be at matches that occur in the international spotlight and spark ugly headlines across the world? —
Think Progress's Travis Waldron on the new FIFA racism regulations.
Remember Stadiums of Hate, last summer’s BBC Panorama program that informed viewers of the virulent and unchecked racism prevalent in the Polish and Ukrainian stadiums that would host the upcoming European Championships? That documentary—and the crucial issues surrounding it—was in large part a galvanizing reason why I created this tumblr. From one of my early posts:
Reporter Chris Rogers traveled to host countries Poland and Ukraine to observe fan behavior in soccer matches. The images, especially those in Ukraine, were disturbing. Large fan sections in Polish stadiums were chanting anti-semitic jeers as standard fare and made monkey noises at black players. The Ukraine footage showed—with the journalist himself in the frame, which eliminates the possibility that this was old stock footage—hundreds, if not thousands, of fans raising their arms in Nazi salutes and, in the worst scene, a pack of fans abandon the fight they were in with opposing fans and run across several sections of the stadium to attack a group of South Asian students. The students, who were cheering for the same team as their attackers, were beaten, kicked, dragged up and pushed down the stairs. It took an excruciatingly long time for stadium authorities to arrive on the scene and, even then, all they could do was try to move the students out. Other footage shows riot police pinned against plexiglass by rioting fans, so it’s not clear how effective authorities would be anyway.
During the program, we see former England captain Sol Campbell watching the footage and commenting on it. In fact, the program unwisely treats him as an authority on the subject. Nevertheless, he strongly urged fans to stay at home, lest they end up dead. (His exact words: “you could end up coming back in a coffin.”) The British Foreign Office has warned fans of Afro-Caribbean and South Asian descent to take special caution. The families of two young England players, including 18-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who is playing in his first major soccer tournament (and whose father himself played for England), aren’t going.
Although there were several incidents of black players being jeered by opposing team fans (again, well documented here), we did not see the kind of ghastly spectacles anticipated by Stadiums of Hate. One of the theories going into the tournament was that the worst racist offenders are partisans of their local clubs; they wouldn’t be interested in the international competition.
A year on, and Waldron’s comments, which draw on Wright Thompson’s reporting for ESPN about racist ultras in Italy—add weight to that theory. While incidents against Balotelli or Boateng get a lot of attention, it’s the lower club levels where the majority of the abuse occurs. It’s also the lower levels that might be the hardest to regulate. And it’s likely that if we see a significant decrease in racism incidents at the international level, it may not be an accurate reflection of a wider spread eradication.
His Life as a Murder Suspect -
A sad story—Van de Velde seems no longer to be the prime suspect—but one with many little gems that remind me just how much has changed since 1999: “dean of Yale College, Richard Brodhead,” a pre-9/11 “senior essay […] about the terrorist Osama bin Laden,” and my favorite, “a local deejay, Glenn Beck.”
Dear Charlotte Moore (acting controller, BBC One),
As the ninth series of The Apprentice is aired, we want to draw your attention to an important omission from BBC TV programming. Business shows like The Apprentice inspire generations of entrepreneurs and provide role-models for young leaders and whole swathes of the workforce. But by and large, the business leaders we are currently watching are leading 20th century-style businesses, using outdated business models and methods.
There is a growing global social enterprise movement. It’s thriving as a result of the last few decades of business practices and behaviours that are being spurned by people of all generations, especially young people.
The people running social enterprises are running successful businesses – but their main purpose isn’t just the pursuit of profit. Business like Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, Pants to Poverty, the Big Issue, Belu water and Divine Chocolate. Social entrepreneurs are running businesses that tackle, rather than create, social and environmental problems.
We, supporters and champions of the social enterprise sector, and leaders in business, are calling on the BBC to host a different kind of Apprentice television programme. One that recognises the hard work of the men and women using their business acumen to help people and the planet. One that showcases their talent and inspires the next wave of budding entrepreneurs to use business as a means to create real social change in the UK. —
The UK’s version of The Apprentice is one of my favorite ever reality shows. Ever. The US version doesn’t hold a candle to the hilarity that ensues in the British version. (The Irish version was pretty fab as well.) I mean where else are you going to hear gems like this?
I’m half machine. I can process things at a speed that is out of this world.
That person was eliminated in week 1. Another gem:
I take inspiration from Napoleon. I am here to conquer.
To which Lord Sugar (Apprentice boss, Labour peer) responded (said candidate had apparently recorded similar sentiments in his resume),
You can consider me the Duke of Wellington of this process.
That said, it is perhaps the most visible distillation of what business in the UK currently is. At some point, I’ll write about the Irish version of The Apprentice, but both shows have reflected how drastically the 2008 economic downturn affected business in both countries. In the case of the UK Apprentice, Sugar stopped giving the winner a £100,000 job in one of his companies and instead, starting in series 7 (2011), made the process about choosing a business partner. The winner now receives a £250,000 investment and Sugar as an equal partner in a fledgling business.
This has changed the show in certain ways: the interviews (maybe the greatest highlight of any season and always features the moment when a much too cocksure candidate who has slipped through thus far on slick business patter is cut down to size by a panel unimpressed with vague cliches and more interested in specifics) are now done in the final episode and not the penultimate. Some of the challenges have changed as well, though not all. Viewers also watched with a giant unknown hanging over proceedings. Without knowing the substance of each contestant’s business plan, the audience knew nothing about the supposedly most important factor in the final decision.
How important that missing information would prove wasn’t initially clear. During series 7, the show had one of its best ever contestants, Helen Milligan, who won the most challenges (10 of 11) of any UK contestant and who had almost singlehandedly brought her team hundreds of thousands of pounds and euros worth of product orders—twice. She seemed a lock to win. Yet her final business plan was weak, a real surprise given how strong she had been throughout. It was too weak to beat out the winner’s business plan, which was something vague about back problems and chairs. In reality, Sugar invested in the winner’s previous invention, a curved nail file.
The business plans have by and large been weak. One person last year proposed a call center without much thought to the fact that everybody hates call centers. The weakness of these plans also raises questions about the application/vetting process. But they have shed more light on the difficulties of entrepreneurship.
In that light, it’s significant that the signees (two of whom are former contestants) of this letter calling for BBC programming to feature social entrepreneurship reference The Apprentice specifically. Indeed, they’re calling it “The Apprentice Campaign.” It seems that part of the problem is that the idea of social enterprise is hard to pin down precisely. What is it really? What does it mean? One of the signees, series 7 contestant Melody Hossaini, had a business plan that never made much sense within the context of the show. Her ideas couldn’t be summarized into pithy phrases, and so didn’t work well as television. And maybe that’s the bigger issue: is competitive reality television (or any form of popular entertainment) the best forum to highlight this new type of business? And if not, what is?
Melody Hossaini on social entrepreneurship and the show:
As a social entrepreneur – I run InspirEngage International – I had always been led by my passion for the cause with business being an incidental model for allowing me to do the work I had been doing voluntarily for 10 years.
Suddenly, I was thrust into the world of bottom lines, but this time the bottom line was not measuring social impact and the difference we were making to young people’s lives but merely the pounds and pence we had made that day. The environment and design didn’t allow for a socially enterprising focus. For instance, when asked what job title I wanted on the show, I immediately replied, “social entrepreneur”, but I was met with an uneasy expression and told, “Melody, people will think you’re an entrepreneur who likes going out a lot.” Two years on, and 32 candidates later, it’s extremely disappointing to see that no other social entrepreneurs have been added to the line-up.
A few years ago, figures showed The Apprentice ranked top in TV programmes that inspired individuals to set up their own business. And although that’s positive, I feel an emphasis should be placed on “business for good”, with social enterprise as an option, thereby increasing understanding of social values. At this point, perhaps I should be fair and say that The Apprentice was only reflecting what was mainstream in business, and doing so well, but it needs to be updated to reflect this important and valuable sector.
Indeed, the problems with “The Center Holds” — which draws upon interviews with more than 200 people — underscore the difficulties faced by even the most astute reporters writing what the author calls “contemporary history.” Especially at a time when there is wall-to-wall, 24/7 news coverage online and on TV, and when one narrative — concerning, say, Mr. Obama’s resounding victory in last fall’s election — can so quickly give way to another one of gridlock and dysfunction.
Read today, much of the material here feels like reheated news. Once again, we hear about the “clown car” antics that dominated the Republican primary process as candidates like Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry vied to become their party’s front-runner. Once again, we hear about disarray within the Mitt Romney campaign and its failure to blunt his image as a wealthy businessman out of touch with everyday middle-class concerns. And once again, we hear about the rise of the Tea Party and the president’s clashes with Republicans in Congress over the budget, the debt ceiling and sequestration.
With one exception, Mr. Alter adds: “the intense racial consciousness that he had nurtured in his own mind since childhood was more apparent in private. He knew that if he crossed a certain line in reacting to criticism, he would hand his enemies a weapon: “ ‘See, he’s like all the rest of them.’ It was better for him to be perceived as ‘different,’ with all the challenges that brought.” This “stifling of himself,” this “inability to swing at certain pitches,” made him, according to one aide, about “5 percent more aloof than he had been before coming to the presidency.”
A similar sort of dynamic, in Mr. Alter’s opinion, helps explain the president’s dismal first debate, which jeopardized his re-election: “Obama didn’t trust himself to tangle with Romney. He thought Romney was a liar and an empty suit and would reverse everything worthy he had done as president,” and he had “long worried that his attitude would spill out. Suppressing that was part of what threw him off his game” in that Denver debate. —
Michiko Kakutani on Jonathan Alter’s new book, The Center Holds. Kakutani suggests that the more rapid distribution of news and, crucially, analysis through social media makes these post-campaign rundowns redundant. Even one of the sections that Kakutani deems revelatory isn’t.
And he provides some interesting observations on Republican-backed efforts to implement election “reform” around the country (like requiring state-issued photo ID’s and cutting back on early in-person voting) that would hold down “turnout among young people and minorities, who tended to vote Democratic.” Those efforts failed, says Mr. Alter, instead creating a backlash against Republicans as a wave of black voters headed to the polls in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and Florida, angry at attempts to suppress their votes.
This is news to no one, at least no one who’s black. My father and I said exactly this to each other on election night.
If it is the case that there is less need now for the campaign narrative, it’s a change from even just 4 years ago, when books like Game Change added significantly to our understanding of the 2008 campaign.
P.S. At the end of an interview (6/4/2013) on MSNBC’s Last Word, perhaps smarting from Kakutani’s review, Alter promised that “you will learn something on every single page.”