Monday, February 27, 2012

Opting for illusions

In The Myth of Choice: Personal Responsibility in a World of Limits, law professor Kent Greenfield asserts that too many liberties get taken with our notions of freedom

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.  

Some readers have compared this book to the work of Malcolm Gladwell. It's not hard to see why; the core strategy of Gladwell mega-bestsellers such as The Tipping Point -- arrestingly simple assertion illustrated with anecdotal information from a variety of fields -- is very much in evidence here. But in an important sense, The Myth of Choice, which is about as well-written as anything in Gladwell's entertaining oeuvre, proves to be a more satisfying experience. That's because the illustrations are enlisted in the service in a more focused world view: that the libertarian cast of our sociopolitical discourse is at best misguided and at worst plays into the hands of those who manipulate our false sense of sovereignty in the service of their often pernicious agendas.

It's apparent that Kent Greenfield's life experiences have served him well. Born in small-town Kentucky, the son of a Baptist minister and a schoolteacher, he went to Brown and clerked for Supreme Court justice David Souter before taking a position at Boston College Law School. Each of these elements -- plain-spoken eloquence, intellectual rigor, a methodical cast of mind, flinty New England skepticism -- blend in his first-person voice. He writes as engagingly about a childhood contest of wills with an elementary school teacher as he does in parsing legal opinions. This is a book that can be read in a single sitting -- but also dispensed as bite-sized assignments in any number of humanities or social science courses.

Greenfield begins by noting that the notion of free choice is essentially the default setting in American society. If there's one thing everyone from left wing social activists to conservative evangelicals can agree on, it's an emphasis on agency as principle, goal, and/or reality. Sometimes choice is framed in terms of freedom; other times it's in the name of personal responsibility (with a subtext of cost). But even when two or more sides disagree on an issue, the underlying assumption is often that people can -- or, if not, should be able -- to choose.

The problem, Greenfield says, is that choice isn't always that simple. For one thing, the very meaning of choice can be subjective: one man's "option" is another woman's "necessity." For another, "free" choice often has hidden costs, like environmental clean-up, that are displaced onto others. Sometimes choice can be overwhelming, particularly when presented with incomplete information, as is often the case. Other times choice is relatively meaningless, particularly when the options are (literally or figuratively) unappetizing.

Yet even when choice is perceived to be genuine, there are all kinds of influences that militate against it. Greenfield writes individual chapters on the way biology, culture, market forces, and relations of power all shape the parameters of choice in ways we underestimate, assuming we're conscious of them at all. At the same time, there are people who are quite shrewd about such matters who perform their calculations as finely as as a casino owner playing the gambler. So it is that our propensity for salt, sex, and personal distinction lead us down the path of least resistance, which is not always in our best interest as we ourselves would define them.

Greenfield's real animus though, is against those who invoke personal responsibility as a stalking horse for what turns out to be the opposite: freedom from responsibility. A staunch defender of the Obama administration's health care reforms, he asks how anyone can plausibly invoke the right to opt out of buying an insurance policy given the likelihood that insolvency would be the result of any serious uninsured illness, thus imposing the cost on someone else. He emphasizes the human price on those told to deny any and all altruistic instincts, arguing that the avowedly uninsured deny choice to those told not to avert human suffering. He also foregrounds the imposition on those who have the misfortune of witnessing the gruesome consequences that can result from someone not wearing a motorcycle helmet, for example.

A compendium of recent scholarship that ranges from psychologist Daniel Gilbert to progressives like Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, The Myth of Choice is an unabashed document of the contemporary left. As such it invites disagreement, principally from the direction of wondering how much confidence Greenfield can really have that one can check one's impulses, change habits, and consider context, or whether the very attempt to control environmental factors won't breed new forms of coercion. But even critics will find his argument as among the best of its kind. For all its iconoclasm, this is a book of the zeitgeist, and deserves to be read, now and later, as an expression of it.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Catastrophic speculation

In The Fear Index, Robert Harris explores the volatility of the present instead of his customary time travels to the past

The following review was posted recently the Books page of the History News Network site. 

As  a writer of historical fiction, Robert Harris has few peers in the range of settings for his novels, his skill in evoking an era, or in maintaining a strong narrative pace. Yet whether the story in question has been one of ancient Rome or the alternative history of Nazi Europe in the 1960s, there is an important recurring theme in his work: a fascination with power and hubris it breeds. This fascination has taken readers into realms that include cryptography, engineering, and the profession of ghostwriting. As befitting a writer of thrillers, his protagonists, who work in the shadow of figures that range from Cicero to Stalin, typically find themselves in a race against time. But time -- its sheer implacability, and the way it transcends even the most complacent or colossal human will -- is, thankfully, power's great adversary.

In The Fear Index, Harris locates these themes in a the contemporary world of finance. His protagonist this time is an American physicist, Alexander Hoffman, whose frustrated career ambitions on the Texas super collider project in Texas in the 1990s and with the European particle accelerator (CERN) the following decade, lead him to become a so-called "quant" who has developed an apparently infallible financial algorithm. At the start of this one-day account of his life, Hoffman, who now lives in Geneva with a British wife and as well a Brit business partner, is preparing a presentation to bring a few deep-pocketed investors to his firm. But his apparently serene existence gets thrown into turmoil when he finds an intruder in his high-tech home in the middle of the night, an event which sends him into a cascading series of crises.

That's because, much to Hoffman's own amazement, he has an unknown enemy with astounding powers to subvert even the most impregnable security. Unless, of course, that enemy is himself: Hoffman is forced to question his sanity, and as this story proceeds, you find yourself (along with his wife, that partner and other characters, among them one of those stolid police investigators who always seem to be on hand in these stories) questioning it even more than he does. Meanwhile, his computer program continues its uncanny, inexorable work, taking frighteningly aggressive positions on world markets as those markets become increasingly unstable.

To some extent, Harris hints at where this is all going on the basis of his chapter epigraphs alone, which begin with a passage from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and is followed by a series of quotes from the works of Charles Darwin. Harris speaks through Hoffman in a little set piece in which he explains how we once thought computers (in the form of robots) would take over menial work, whereas we lean on them to calculate (and execute) that which we are incapable of mastering intellectually ourselves. Interestingly, while we experience the story chiefly through Hoffman's point of view, Harris destabilizes our confidence in him -- we come to understand that he's got an Asperger-like personality in the best of times -- even as we find our suspicions falling on other main characters. We eventually come to understand what's actually happening to Hoffman in a big final production (Hollywood, anyone?) that nevertheless avoids tying all the loose ends together.

In short, The Fear Index is a thoroughly conventional thriller that's highly adaptive to an airport environment. But it's a literate, thought-provoking book. It doesn't quite rank as high as Fatherland (1992) or Pompeii (2005) in the Harris canon. But there are few better companions for time travel -- even when, as in this case, that travel takes place in millionths of a second.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A good review

In Life Itself, Roger Ebert surveys a career in the movies

The following review was posted recently the Books page of the History News Network site.  

At one point in this memoir, longtime film critic Roger Ebert describes taking an undergraduate class at University of Illinois on the fiction of Willa Cather and being arrested by Cather's prose, which he describes "as clear as running water." Yes, I said aloud: that captures exactly what I've always so liked about Ebert. There's an artlessness to his criticism that could only be honed by decades of newspaper work. I admired Pauline Kael for her inimitable voice -- not that she's lacked imitators -- and the way I found her taste unpredictable. (I'd often try and guess in advance whether she was going to like a movie before I read her review, and as often as not was wrong.) I'm less interested in trying to guess with Ebert than just to hear what he has to say in that sensible, fair voice of his. I think of his plain-spoken sensibility as quintessentially Midwestern by way of Chicago, land of Royko, Terkel and Eppie Lederer, a.k.a. Ann Landers, three of many Windy City scribes who make appearances on these pages. (There are some amusing Ann Landers stories here, including one about Ebert, a recovering alcoholic, trying to take her to an AA meeting and being rebuffed by the participants. Ebert also used her as a prop in trying to pick up the woman who became his wife.)

As regular readers of his work are aware, Ebert has been struggling with various forms of cancer for a decade now, and has undergone surgery that has left him unable to eat, drink, or speak. But, he explains, this involuntary silence seems to have triggered a flood of memory, leading him to start an autobiographical blog that resulted in this book. It does indeed read like an untrammeled river of prose; as an affectionate but frank Maureen Dowd complained in her review, "The effervescent Ebert doesn’t realize ... that for an autobiography, he doesn’t need to include the names of every childhood friend, parish priest, funeral attendee, and even his phone number when he was a boy."

There is, however, a user-friendliness in the structure of Life Itself that comes straight from the Ebert reviewing playbook; I came to think of it as The Roger Ebert Companion, skipping essay-length chapters that I didn't find particularly compelling and savoring others, like his chapters on John Wayne and Martin Scorsese, that were deeply satisfying. Not all of the good parts were about the movie business. I found his evocation of an ordinary Midwestern childhood vivid and moving, and was fascinated by his early newspaper days at the Chicago Sun-Times. Ebert began there in 1967 and thus experienced the earthy working-class tinged culture of journalism before it got streamlined and professionalized in the closing decades of the last century.

Now Ebert himself is an emblem of a vanishing world. He was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize (in 1975) and has churned out reviews with astonishing consistency for forty years. At the same time, Ebert also symbolizes the transformation of journalistic culture. His longtime friendly crosstown rivalry with Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune led to a highly successful syndicated TV show under various names in the eighties and nineties before Siskel's death in 1999 (it continues to run in shifting permutations without him). Ebert's been around long enough to become a brand in his own right, and is now a cottage industry that includes book publishing and a robust online presence. He emphasizes that for all his setbacks of recent years he enjoys reasonably good health -- thanks in no small measure to his wife, Chaz -- and it's clear he intends to ply his trade for some time to come.

It's a good thing: we're not going to get anyone else like him. The days of the professional reviewer seem numbered in a fractured media culture where everybody's an expert and nobody can really expect to make a living as a critic. It seems increasingly exotic to imagine a time when Hollywood studios made it easy for journalists to go behind the camera and when stars would speak their minds without a publicist present. The old order had its corruptions (Kael, we now know, could be shameless in conferring or withholding favor). But Ebert's unselfconscious simplicity describing the old days engenders confidence in an essential decency that has remained intact through thick and thin. Call this one thumbs up.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A. Lincoln, 2/12/09

An annual tribute to my hero. --J.C.

He's right there when I enter the classroom first thing in the morning, his gentle smile directly in my line of sight. That's just the way I wanted it. The photograph is in the public domain, and so I could have gotten it for free, but I was glad to pay an online poster company for an image that's about 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide. It came shortly before his hundred 199th birthday. Now I celebrate every day.

It's a pretty famous picture. One of about a half-dozen we have engraved in our collective memory, trotted out by retailers for Presidents’ Day sales. It was taken by Alexander Gardner, former assistant of the famed Matthew Brady, who got tired of Brady getting credit for his pictures and struck out on his own. Gardner had been out in the field taking pictures at the front, but came back to Washington and had secured an appointment with the president. Though there's some dispute about the dating, the consensus is that was taken on April 10, 1865, about four days before he died. This was just after the fall of Richmond, one of the few truly happy days of his presidency. Earlier that week, he'd gone to the Confederate capital itself and swiveled in Jefferson Davis’s desk chair (he had a rebel five dollar bill in his pocket that night at Ford’s Theater). He had the good grace to be embarrassed when a group of former slaves threw themselves at his feet on the street, thanking him for their freedom. It was God, not I, who freed you, he said. Only one day earlier, Lee had surrendered to Grant; for all practical purposes, the war was over.

One of the things I love so much about the picture is that smile on his face, slight but unmistakable. That's very rare. People tend not to smile in 19th-century photographs because exposure times were relatively prolonged, and such expressions seem fake if you have to sustain them for more than a moment. Of course, there was also the matter that he didn't have a whole lot to smile about in those terrible days. The fact that he was doing so here, just after his gargantuan task was accomplished and just before he became another casualty in the struggle, seems almost unbearably moving.

Indeed, the smile, real as it is, does not hide the deep sense of sorrow etched into his face. He fingers his glasses with a kind of absent-minded gentleness. His bow tie is slightly off-center; to the last he never lost his rumpled quality. He managed to retain a full head of jet black hair and beard, only slightly touched with gray. Yet there's something almost steely about them. Though his face seems about as soft as the bark on a tree, I find myself wishing I could run my hand across it. Walt Whitman had it right -- he's so ugly that he's beautiful.

But it's the eyes that haunt me. His right eye is a socket; he looks like he's half dead already. His left eye is cast downward slightly. It does not seem focused on anything in the room, but seems instead to be gazing within, saturated with a sadness that nothing will ever take away. They say he had a great sense of humor and loved cracking jokes to the very end, and I believe it. Surely there was no man on the face of the earth who could have savored a good laugh more. A look into those eyes could leave no doubt.

But the strongest impression conveyed by the photograph is one of compassion. Kindness as a form of wisdom. That's my aspiration. On Monday morning, this room will be filled with hungry, well fed adolescents. Some will be laughing, some will be content. But surely it will do someone some good to have him there. He'll be gazing out for the discussion of Little Big Horn, the Pullman Strike, the New Deal, the request for an extension on the research essay, and lunch. Long after I'm gone, he will remain.

Happy 203nd, Mr. Lincoln.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Habit of authority

After a string of light roles, Streep became a prying nun -- and took her vision of feminism to a new level

The following post is part of a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies.

Most of Streep's movies in the last decade amount to liberal feminist fantasies, in that the women in question have remunerative, prestigious, and emotionally rewarding careers. This is also true of Julie & Julia, which projects such a vision back in time, depicting the happily married Julia Child’s successful quest to find a professional calling (though grieves at her inability to bear a child). In an interesting variation on this idea, Streep plays a wealthy woman with no obvious paid employment but who works as a patron of the arts and as a mentor to a troubled Chinese astronomy graduate student in the little-seen Dark Matter (2008), whose release was delayed by a year because its plot resembled the circumstances surrounding the Virginia Tech shootings of 2007. 
It’s in this context that Streep’s performance as Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the authoritarian nun of Doubt (2008) is so important. John Patrick Shanley wrote and directed this adaptation of his 2004 play about a 1960s priest (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who may or may not be a pedophile, the principal of the parochial school (Streep) who’s convinced that he is, and the young nun (Amy Adams, who appeared with Streep in Julie & Julia) who’s unsure. Shanley’s exquisitely calibrated screenplay is constructed in such a way that it’s impossible to say with any certainty whether Sister Aloysius’s conduct in her pursuit of the priest, which is both intense and ethically ambiguous, is justified. For our purposes, what matters is that we’re dealing with a working-class woman—something we know solely on the basis of her thick Bronx accent—who holds an important job that’s not merely a career, but a vocation. She wields real power, and does so through a series of techniques that include intimidation, passive-aggressive behavior, and a supple command of bureaucratic machinery.  Sister Aloysius is thus a walking illustration of the maxim that it’s women, not men, who actually run the Roman Catholic Church.
Run, but not rule. As she herself states plainly early in the movie, the man she suspects is her superior. She regards his boss as incompetent at best, and suspects his former one is covering for him. To make matters worse, the mother (Viola Davis) of the African American child (Joseph Foster) that Sister Alyosius fears is a victim of the priest believes that even if the allegations are true, this form of abuse is a balm given the physical abuse he endures at the hands of his father, at a school that represents real opportunity for the boy’s future. Sister Aloysius then resorts to great cunning by fabricating a conversation with another nun, and blackmailing the priest into resigning. (Naturally, he’s kicked upstairs.)
It is possible to finish watching Doubt and conclude that in overstepping her occupational boundaries, ignoring the wishes of a mother who believes she is acting in her child’s best interests, and committing what she herself considers a mortal sin, Sister Aloysius is guilty of creating a deeply tragic outcome. This is all the more so given that for most of the movie, the evidence for her suspicions against the priest amount to little more than an observation that he fails to trim his fingernails. But it’s not credibly possible to finish watching Doubt and fail to see that Sister Aloysius is a deeply committed woman who is willing to make grave personal sacrifices in order to do what she believes is right. Nor, given the recent history of the Church, is it possible not to see real prescience on the part of a woman who tried to prevent a great moral evil that was perpetrated by generations of men who failed to exercise their unchecked authority in a responsible matter. Meryl Streep’s feminist vision is bigger than that of wealthy white women who want a well-appointed home, regular orgasms, and glamorous careers. It’s one in which all women, and thus all men, have a stake.

Next: the final installment in the Streep series -- and the "Sensing the Past" series

Monday, February 6, 2012

Kindling "Maria"

In the summer of 2009, a series of blog posts known as "The Maria Chronicles" began running on American History Now. (You can sample them via the complete list further down on the right side of this page). Each of these discrete but interrelated pieces told a year in the life of Maria Bradstreet, a middle-aged divorcee and veteran teacher who began her life over by taking a job a a new school. The ensuing chronicles attempt to capture life in the classroom as it is rarely experienced in the vast professional literature on education. I've collected these pieces into a Kindle e-book that's now available for 99 cents at  My hope is that it will be of value for teachers, students, and all with an interest in life as it is often experienced in high school. Thanks to all who have had a look at them, and this blog, in the last three years.
--Jim Cullen

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Happy Birthday to AHN

Saturday marks the third anniversary of this blog. To commemorate it, I'm re-running my first post of February 4, 2009. I'm very grateful for the tens of thousands of visits American History Now has received since its launch, and hope it will have many more. Thanks for coming, and keep an eye out for Bruce Springsteen's new album, Wrecking Ball, which will be released early next month.

--Jim Cullen

Outlaw Pete:
Springsteen Makes a Western

Among the many virtues in Bruce Springsteen’s music is a rich sense of history. And like many of those virtues, that sense of history has emerged organically over the course of his career. Springsteen’s first albums, Greetings from Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, were marked by a powerful sense of immediacy; to a great extent, they’re records of the present tense. Beginning with the release of Born to Run, a consciousness of history – principally in the form of a growing awareness of past failure, and a desperate desire to avoid similar mistakes – begins to suffuse the consciousness of his characters. This consciousness is deeply personal, typically expressed, for example, in generational tensions between fathers and sons. That’s what I mean by “organic.”

By about 1980, Springsteen’s sense of history begins to get broader. It emerges in a series of forms, ranging from his decision to perform songs like Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” (reading 1980 Joe Klein’s biography of Guthrie as the suggestion of his manager, Jon Landau, seems to have been a watershed experience) to recording original songs like “Wreck on the Highway,” avowedly patterned on the style of country & western singer Roy Acuff. His 1982 album Nebraska is saturated with a sense of the 1930s (his 1995 album The Ghost of Tom Joad even more so), and even deeply personal songs like “Born in the U.S.A.” connect the private struggles of their protagonist to much larger historical ones. This trajectory is a striking, and impressive testament to an artist’s power to grow and integrate everyday life into a broader human drama.

One of the less remarked upon aspects of Springsteen’s body of work is his fascination with the West. This is, of course, counterintuitive – Springsteen is nothing if not the voice of New Jersey, an embodiment of urban, ethnic, working-class values and culture typically associated with the Northeast Corridor. But the western signposts are there, as early as “Rosalita,” which climaxes with a vision of triumphant lovers savoring their victory over paternal repression in a café near San Diego. That’s a fleeting reference. But beginning with Darkness on the Edge of Town – think of the “rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert” of “The Promised Land” – the West becomes a vivid and indispensable setting for a number of songs. Springsteen being Springsteen, he’s not always content simply to invoke or use such settings in conventional ways. So, for example, the gorgeous yearning that marks his 1995 song “Across the Border,” redolent with music, instrumentation, and language of the Southwest, is purposely ambiguous which side of the border its protagonists long to go. Springsteen’s mythic tendencies are often marked by creative friction with the concrete details and ironic realities of everyday life.

“Outlaw Pete,” the leadoff track on Springsteen’s latest album, Working on a Dream, represents the next turn of the wheel in a way that’s somehow predictable, surprising, and inevitable all at once. Superficially, the song, like the album as a whole, is something of a throwback, a return to the dense, lush, melodic pop songs that were once Springsteen’s stock-in-trade. At eight minutes long, it’s also the first time in decades that’s he’s recorded a mini-epic on the scale of “Incident on 57th St.” or “Jungleland.” For thirty years now, the overall trend in Springsteen’s work has been toward more sparse, even minimalist songs that approach spoken-language records, though the approach here was first broached on Magic in 2007.

It’s almost jarring to hear his eager embrace of melodic hooks and multi-track harmonies. It’s also almost jarring in that “Outlaw Pete” so willfully introduces us to a protagonist who seems like a cartoon figure from an imitation John Ford movie, who “at six months old” had “done three months in jail” and “robbed a bank in his diapers and little baby feet.” Pete’s signature question, “Can you hear me?” seems like a childish insistence for attention. Some might be amused by such a description; others might dismayed, even irritated by its triviality. One could be forgiven for perceiving that Springsteen is slipping into superficiality in his advancing age, perhaps trying to recapture the sense of popular appeal that once seems so effortlessly his.

But appearances are deceiving. More specifically, our perception of Outlaw Pete is deceiving. After hearing the seemingly requisite description of a horse-stealing, heart-breaking scoundrel – rendered in an amused voice that suggests the narrator views him as a figure closer to a rakishly charming Jesse James than a hard, frightening, Liberty Valance – the story turns on a dime (the music, which shifts to a declining phrase of repeating notes, indicates this) as Pete gets a vision of his own death that prompts him to marry a Navajo and settle down with a newborn daughter on a reservation. Yet in some sense the story is only getting started. A vindictive lawman – another staple of western mythology – is determined to bring Pete down and precipitates a confrontation. “Pete you think you have changed but you have not,” Dan tells him, in so doing posing the existential question at the heart of the song, which is to what degree we have agency over our characters and thus our fate. In the showdown that follows Pete is nominally the victor, yet Dan literally gets the last word in observing before his death that “we cannot undo these things that we’ve done.” The question “Can you hear me?” is turned on its head, as Dan speaks to Pete instead of Pete speaking to the world.

Pete, now a fugitive from the law, makes an ambiguous disappearance from the story. Is it to be understood that his encounter with Dan demonstrates the fixed nature of his personality and the impossibility of any lasting mortal redemption? Or is it an act of abnegation that protects his wife and daughter from the wickedness that surrounds him? The final verses of the song depict Dan’s daughter braiding Pete’s buckskin chaps in her hair – original sin and grace at once – with the question “Can you hear me?” now completely reversed, as we listeners seek the vanished Pete. Like Alan Ladd in Shane or John Wayne in any number of westerns, Pete catalyzes action that leads to resolution, but pushes him beyond the frame.

Like a great many works of art, “Outlaw Pete” asks many more questions than it answers. But there are at least two things it does clarify. The first is the ongoing vitality of western mythology (now nicely updated with a multicultural accent) as a vehicle for exploring the complexities of American life. The second is the ongoing vitality of Springsteen himself, 37 years into an enormously broad and deep body of work, to reinvent himself through reviewing and revising our cultural traditions. He hears us, and we see ourselves.