Friday, May 22, 2015

The Man Knew His Micah

Your humble narrator recently received an invitation from alma mater (the graduate one) to say a few words about his doctoral director, Lance G. Banning (1942-2006). Unfortunately, a vicious case of stomach flu kept me from going to Kentucky to deliver my talk. Fortunately, I wasn't the main speaker at the event, and a member of the U.K. History Department, Tracy Campbell, read my remarks for me. (Thank heavens for email.) It occurred to me, though, that while I've written a memorial or two on this blog before, I haven't yet said anything on behalf of Lance, who as my chief graduate adviser played a big role in my intellectual development. To remedy, however partially, this omission, I present herewith my words from last week's event:


We have heard of Lance Banning's many accomplishments as a scholar. I'd like to take a few minutes to discuss his merits as a mentor. These merits grew out of one of Professor Banning's personal virtues: his appreciation for the blessings of private life. Lance had studied with J.G.A. Pocock and may have been one of the few people to understand that turgid Kiwi, but I think he found little appeal in Pocock's account of the ideal of the vita activa, the active political life. What Lance most appreciated, I think, was the modest but fruitful life of a gentleman scholar: time with his books, particularly the belles lettres of his heroes Jefferson and Madison; time to write, which he did so masterfully; time to exchange ideas with fellow seekers of truth, like the professors and attorneys he gathered at so many Liberty Fund conferences; and time for recreation, for a softball game or one of his morally indefensible bowls of popcorn.* Lance was fond of Richard Matthews's book The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson. Discussing that monograph with him I realized that Dr. Banning agreed with Matthews's Jefferson about the essence of the good life: everyone under his own vine and fig tree, free from fear and free to pursue happiness.

These genteel aspirations informed Lance's attitude toward his students. His main undertaking as a graduate instructor was to give his charges the tools to pursue their own intellectual interests. He taught us to critique methodologically diverse scholarship, to read primary sources - I spent one semester with him reading all of Madison's notes on the Philadelphia convention, along with large swaths of the Federalist - and, above all, to write clearly and effectively. Beyond that, Lance preferred to let students find their own interests and pursue them wherever they led, knowing this would reinforce the focus and drive they needed to finish a dissertation. When I discovered a bizarre story about paranoid arch-Federalist Timothy Pickering's diplomatic missions to the Iroquois, and wanted to follow it up with a research paper, Lance didn't tell me that the subject of early U.S. Indian policy had been done to death. Instead, he asked probing questions, read and edited a dozen of my drafts, and offered praise and encouragement all the way to the dissertation that grew from this project. Lance didn't see the publication of Red Gentlemen and White Savages, but in his final email to me he mentioned its progression through the editorial gauntlet, as well as Todd Estes's book (then in press) and new or forthcoming works by two more of his students. "You guys are doing me proud," he declared.

Lance had no academic axe to grind or agenda to push, other than helping create other intellectuals. The diversity of careers that his students have followed - leading Liberty Fund events, managing Congressional staff, military history, ethnohistory, ecological and local history, academic administration, writing a two-century overview of slavery and empire - demonstrates Lance's understanding that everyone pursues happiness and intellectual fulfillment in different ways. That we have done so successfully, that we have each cultivated our own vine and fig tree, is an important part of his legacy.

* I've never actually seen one of these, but apparently Lance would pop a medium-sized bowl, then pour an entire melted stick of butter on top, then cover the soggy mass with a blizzard of salt.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Post-Racing and Vote-Wasting

The United Kingdom held its national elections last week, and the bad guys won. By that, I mean victory went to the pro-Tory newspapers and their multimillionaire owners. The Conservatives picked up enough seats to form a majority government, while the Labour Party lost Scotland to the Scottish National Party (SNP), and the Liberal Democrats lost nearly 90 percent of their seats in Parliament and their place in the country's governing coalition. One may attribute the Tories' victory to Britain's gradual economic recovery, a poorly-run Labour campaign, or any number of other causes. But asking why Labour lost and the Conservatives won is the less interesting question. In this election, millions of Britons voted for third parties, not just the LibDems and the Scottish Nationals but the Greens and the fast-growing UKIP (U.K. Independence Party). Yet outside of Scotland, only a handful of seats in Parliament went to third-party candidates. Why?

The explanation lies in the mechanics of British elections, which use the same “First Past the Post” (FPTP) system as elections in India, the United States, and forty other countries. In FPTP, whichever candidate gets a plurality of votes in a given constituency wins the election. The political scientist Maurice Duverger has observed that FPTP almost always produces a two-party duopoly. Voters in a First-Past-the Post system, recognizing that whichever candidate gets a plurality of votes wins 100 percent of the election, prefer not to back politicians whom they think will only place or show, as this will “waste” their vote. (Second- and third-place winners get zero percent of the stakes.) Collectively they align themselves behind two parties whom they believe equally likely to win. Sometimes they pick fewer than that, when one party has overwhelming local popularity or an apparent lock on the machinery of voting – for example, in the American South during the era of Democratic-Party rule (1877-1964).

When voters do back third-party candidates, the geographic structure of FPTP elections works against them. Many third parties are insurgent movements with diffused national support, while established duopoly parties have built up limited but reliable pluralities in specific regions. In Britain, Labour and the Tories, with their reliable urban and suburban constituencies, only had to “pay” 30-40,000 votes for each Parliamentary seat they won, because they had decades to assemble pluralities in several hundred voting districts. The more diffused Greens “paid” over one million votes for each MP they elected, and UKIP paid 4,000,000 votes for its one Member of Parliament. Parties with a national, rather than a localized, focus pay a huge penalty when voting is regional and regional plurality-winners take everything. That the recent UK election represented a triumph for local over national politics becomes clear when one considers the big third-party winners: the Scottish Nationals, a regional party by definition. Ideologically, I am more on the side of the SNP than UKIP, but I recognize the basic iniquity behind the two parties' lopsided election performance: all 56 of the winning SNP candidates collectively received only half as many votes as UKIP did.

There are certainly alternatives to First-Past-the-Post. The most widespread of these, globally speaking, is proportional voting, in which each party receives a share of legislators apportioned to their share of the national vote. This would have produced a Tory plurality in the current British Parliament, but also would have given UKIP enough seats to leverage a coalition with the Conservatives. Alternative Voting, in which voters rank-order candidates, is another possibility. It is used in Australia and some American cities, and is a more practical alternate voting system for countries like Britain or the U.S. which vote by geographical districts. Britain held a referendum on AV in 2011, a Tory concession to their LibDem coalition partner, but the Conservatives gave it little support and it flopped with voters. It is unlikely that the new British government, which wants to reduce the size of Parliament – and, I suspect, redraw the constituency map in its own favor – will repeat that concession. An independent Scotland could do so in the future, however, and so too could American cities and states. AV voting won't significantly challenge party duopolies in countries that have them, but it will oblige all successful candidates for office to have majority support (even if it's composed of a mixture of first- and second-choice votes), and will make fewer voters feel that they wasted their ballots. There are few things more demoralizing to the citizens of a democratic republic than hearing, in election after election, "You wasted your vote." And surely major political parties and the wealthy interest groups who back them don't want voters demoralized and unwilling to come to the polls, do they?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Putin is the Sober, Shirtless Yeltsin

Recently my university hosted the journalist, author, and proud expellee (from Russia) David Satter, who provided his lively and engaged audience with historical perspective on the Russian campaign in Ukraine. Satter attributed Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimea and subsequent false-flag operations in the Donetsk region to political opportunism. Faced, Satter observed, with calls for reform in Russia, and worried about a spillover effect from the 2014 uprising in Kiev, Vladimir Putin chose to divert Russian public attention with a war, which he probably expected to prove a short and successful one like the 2008 conflict with Georgia.
In pursuing this line of policy, Putin demonstrated deep continuity between current Russian politics and those of the 1990s. In the ill-informed view of many contemporary Americans, Russia in this decade was a developing democracy under the buffoonish but harmless leadership of Boris Yeltsin. Actually, Satter reminded us, Russia in the 1990s was a grim, decrepit dystopia, still suffering the aftershocks of the Soviet collapse. GDP contracted 50%, excess deaths from disease and alcoholism (among other causes) topped six million, and contract murder reached epidemic proportions. Meanwhile, a handful of old apparatchiks and Yeltsin cronies plundered the nation’s resources. By 1999, with social pathology reaching a peak, many Russians of Satter’s acquaintance speculated that Yeltsin would cancel the upcoming presidential elections. Instead, following several bombings in Russian cities, Yeltsin declared that the nation was under attack by Chechen terrorists, and launched a punitive war against Chechnya. This provided cover for Yeltsin to resign at the end of 1999 in favor of his prime minister, Putin, who pardoned his predecessor, ended the Chechen war, and handily won the 2000 election.

Putin had also been director of Russia's Federal Security Bureau, successor to the old KGB, and it is not entirely surprising that journalists like Satter found evidence that the FSB had set the bombs which Yeltsin blamed on Chechen terrorists. (The bureau was persuasively linked to a botched bombing attempt the same year.) That Russia has no monopoly on this kind of skullduggery is a point Mr. Satter chose not to make, but an American historian could: in the 1960s the CIA used a bombing campaign to undermine a left-wing government in Greece, and one might argue that George W. Bush used the Iraq War, and the ginned-up and misinterpreted evidence that justified it, to bolster his popular support the year before the 2004 election.

Satter concluded that Putin may have unleashed nationalist forces he cannot control, a wave of "chauvinistic euphoria" that will push him to further foreign adventurism in the Baltic states or Central Asia. For my part, I suspect Putin has become adept at managing the reactionaries in his own country, and at using Russia's armed forces to appease them by provoking (or counter-provoking) other nations but not actually starting wars with them. The campaign in Ukraine will end, I suspect, when it no longer generates political capital for the Russian regime, or when the president decides Russia's army can no longer logistically sustain it - in either case, on a timetable more of Mssr. Putin's choosing than anyone else's. 


Image One: Boris Yeltsin dancing, 1996, Associated Press:
 Image Two: Yeltsin with Putin, Dec. 1999, via

Friday, March 27, 2015

Three Hundred Dollars

One would think I had learned enough, in a decade and a half of teaching, not to assign survey-level students a reading assignment over spring break, but this year hope triumphed over experience, and I found myself on the Monday after break facing fifty undergraduates who had not (with a few exceptions) bothered with the reading for our class discussion. Most of them didn't even bring their books to class. Facing the need to conduct a reading discussion under these unfavorable circumstances, I took the expedient of carefully reading aloud several passages from our assignment, the opening chapters of Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and inviting the class to consider several narrow but interrelated questions.

The reading concerned Harriet Jacobs's grandmother, Molly Horniblow, the slave of a hotel owner in early nineteenth-century North Carolina. Like many other urban masters, Horniblow's owner allowed her to earn money in her spare time, in her case by baking and selling crackers to townspeople. Provided she bought her children's clothing from the proceeds, Jacobs's grandmother was permitted to keep the rest of her baking profits, which she saved to buy her children's freedom. Having put aside three hundred dollars, probably the result of several years of “midnight bakings,” Horniblow was prevailed upon to loan her savings to her mistress, who promised to repay the loan but died before making good. Jacobs's grandmother applied to her mistress's son-in-law, Dr. Norcom (whom Jacobs called “Doctor Flint”), for payment. He, having spent the money on “silver candelabra” for his home, told Horniblow the estate was insolvent. Then Dr. Flint, as executor and Horniblow's new owner, sold his creditor at auction.

I asked my students to reflect on where that three hundred dollars came from, and what it turned into, and what it represented. Three hundred dollars probably represented more than six hundred nightly bakings: tens of thousands of crackers, thousands of hours of labor. It constituted a down payment on the freedom of Horniblow's children. And later, in the hands of an unscrupulous executor, it turned into an expensive adornment of a genteel house, a badge of irresponsible aristocracy. People in the antebellum South could turn their labor into food or money or other people's bodies; they could also, if they were white and had preferential access to the courts, turn that labor into luxuries for themselves and continued enslavement for those who trusted them. Capitalism can sustain remarkable acts of alchemy, but in the end those with the right connections or the socially correct skin color choose the final form that raw materials, capital, and lives will take.

The story ended, incidentally, not entirely unhappily. Horniblow's white customers flocked to the auction block on the day of her sale, and arranged for her purchase and subsequent freeing in a no-bid auction. Horniblow had earned more than cash with her midnight bakings – she had also earned the goodwill of the white community, who called her “Aunt Marthy.” As a free woman she became one of Dr. Flint's nemeses, feared by him for her physical courage and sharp tongue, and a source of protection for her teenage granddaughter Harriet when Flint decided to start playing Dangerous Liaisons. Money is but one form of credit in a capitalist society, and not always the most creditable one.


(The photo above is of Harriet Jacobs, not her grandmother, though the two probably resembled one another.)

Monday, March 02, 2015

Dancing Space Mice FTW

Earlier this semester I asked one of my upperclassmen, who had
just returned from a semester in Japan, where he had attended university in that polite and well-groomed country. He mentioned that he had been in a small city that was essentially a suburb of Tokyo, and I commented (having just visited Tokyo myself) that it was essentially an amalgam of small cities joined together into a larger unit.

"Just like Voltron!" another, slightly older student promptly observed.

I think he wins the discussion.


P.S.: Space Mice? Indeed.

Monday, February 16, 2015

President's Day: James K. Polk

James Polk has no large monuments dedicated to him, no presidential library burnishing his reputation, but he is an American president whom history buffs can't help bumping into. In high school I learned of Polk's role in acquiring Oregon and the Mexican Cession for the United States, though not about the sense of betrayal this evoked in Northern politicians, who resented Polk's reneging on his promise to acquire British Columbia as well. In college I came across George Alec Effinger's sci-fi story “The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything,” in which omniscient aliens revealed that Polk, who had fulfilled all his campaign promises in one term, was the greatest American president. Who was I, mere Earthling, to argue? Effinger's story probably inspired They Might Be Giants' now-classic song “James K. Polk,” which I discovered in grad school and inflicted on my survey classes for several years.* On Facebook, I briefly indulged in the online version of Oregon Trail, in which Polk appeared as a minor tavern-lounger. And a few years ago, when I attended a stimulating NEH seminar at the University of North Carolina, a handsome statue reminded me that UNC had been the eleventh president's alma mater. Polk has been, as I say, a hard man to escape.

I hold no brief for Polk's personal or political virtue. The thin-skinned Tennessean was not merely a slave-owner but a slave-dealer, and his acquisition of New Mexico and California little more than military piracy, abetted by Mexico's political instability and its embroilment, as Brian Delay has ably shown, in a two-front war against the United States and the Comanches. I've not yet read through Tom Chaffin's new book Met His Every Goal?, but what I've seen of it suggests that Polk never even made the campaign promises that he fulfilled during his presidency, and he under-fulfilled two of those ostensible promises: acquiring Texas (actually accomplished by his predecessor, John Tyler) and acquiring all of the Oregon Country (he actually agreed to divide the territory with Britain). I will give Polk credit for one thing, though: his ability to endure intense pain. In his youth James suffered through surgery to remove bladder stones, an operation that probably left him sterile (he and his wife Sarah Childress had no children) and which, I suspect, left him with periodic discomfort thereafter. Polk's supporters called the Tennessean “Young Hickory,” in reference to his patron Andrew Jackson. Insofar as hickory trees were tough and given that Jackson also endured considerable pain (due to dental problems and several old dueling wounds), the nicknames were aptly-chosen. Lucky we are to live in a century with decent health care.

* In 2013 I had the pleasure of hearing TMBG perform this song live in Saint Louis. Achievement Unlocked.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Professorial Coup

If yesterday’s election in Greece has not left me enthused*, it has certainly intrigued me. While the Anglo-American press has characterized Syriza, the dominant party (149 of 300 seats) in the new Greek Parliament, as “radical leftists,” their platform seems more center-left than socialist. The Wall Street Journal, in a surprisingly sympathetic article** (paywalled, alas), observes that many of Syriza’s legislative candidates are college professors, which makes their so-called “Keynesian-Marxist” governing philosophy easier to understand. Professors tend toward what one might call actual conservatism: the desire to conserve and use old institutions and techniques that have worked well enough in the past. Whatever its flaws, Keynesian deficit spending works well enough at stimulating a depressed economy, provided someone is willing to loan the government enough money. (Of course, the “Troika” of European Commission, European Central Bank, and IMF are reluctant to do so.) I suspect, too, that college professors are more concerned by the high level of youth unemployment in Greece (40%, IIRC) than other professionals. No-one wants to consign their graduates to years, possibly decades, of unemployment. As for Syriza’s Marxism, I suspect we’ll see very little of it. It probably runs no deeper than the radicalism of Anglo-American students who dabbled in Marxism in the 1960s and became yuppies twenty years later, or of professors who called themselves “Marxologists” in the ‘80s and then spent their energy fighting over endowed chairs and parking privileges. I doubt we will see any Greek gulags. Unless they have decent faculty parking.

* Syriza’s coalition partner, the Independent Democrats, does not thrill me. They are center-right nationalists who don’t care for Germany, understandably enough in light of German bankers’ support for austerity, and oppose immigration, a somewhat more ominous position. They're still a better option than Golden Dawn.

** Charles Forelle, "Syriza's Rise Fueled by Professors-Turned Politicians," WSJ, 23 Jan. 2015.