23 September 2008

Spurious Quotations

Historians are dull people; they can kill a conversation with a fact.
Robert Littlewood
It is impossible to verify the quotation above. Bob Littlewood said something along these lines when I was in his office for one of our periodic meetings. We were discussing the possibilities and pitfalls of interdisciplinary research. Many of our conversations worked their way through the perceptions of scholars in one academic discipline about the methodologies of another. I was working in literature, anthropology, and history.

Under Littlewood’s tutelage in anthropological theory I read The Sacred Canopy (1967) by Peter Berger; Eric Wolf’s seminal essay, “The Virgin of Guadalupe: A Mexican National Symbol,” Journal of American Folklore (1958); Talal Asad’s “Anthropological Conceptions of Religion: Reflections on Geertz,” Man (1983); and much more. I outlined a research program focused on the study of patriotism as civil religion with attention towards Texas v. Johnson 491 U.S. 397 (1989), the Nez Perce flag dance, the rise of the Religious Right in the Seventies and Eighties. Because I mentioned in passing Dreamtime: Concerning the Boundary Between Wilderness and Civilization (1987) by Hans Peter Duerr, he read it and demanded some accountability from my perusal. Dreamtime is a fantastic book with a mere 125 pages of main text and many hundreds of pages of footnotes. Once Littlewood looked at the book, I could no longer afford to neglect the footnotes, which were “the most interesting part,” he said.

Dreamtime is a book that I stumbled upon in the bookstore. While I was looking at it, a colleague came by and we discussed the book. I showed her the extensive footnotes and bibliography amounting to more than three quarters of the volume. This colleague, who was pursuing a Ph.D. in composition and rhetoric, told me I should spurn the book simply out of principle in opposition to writers that draft long discursive footnotes. I listened to her dissertation on principles, on writing, and upon the consumer behavior of bibliophiles. I bought the book because it reflected principles of scholarship important to me. I value footnotes.

I read Dreamtime the day I bought it, but forgetting my principles, neglected the footnotes until Littlewood drove me back towards them.

I’ll be having this really interesting conversation with James, and then he’ll start speaking in footnotes.
Sherman Alexie
Readers of Sherman Alexie’s poetry and fiction will have seen statements where he disparages certain aspects of academic practice and perhaps also his use of footnotes as a trope for detail obsessed scholars. His statement above, if it was ever spoken, was reported to me through a third party to whom he spoke about me. Nearly a decade after this alleged utterance, he admitted to me that he probably said something along these lines.

Novelists are in the business of making up conversations to carry along a story, including often credible accounts of another era. Part of the business of historians is creation of stories from verifiable fragments of conversations in other eras. Footnotes offer the records of verification, and often the adventure of the quest or alternate plots lines for the story. In the case of bad history—fabrication, falsification, plagiarism—the footnotes (or their absence) often tell the story. These facts may end interesting conversations, but they also provoke new and vital discussions.

Footnotes are integral to reliable texts.

04 September 2008

Energy Policy

Starting in January, in a McCain-Palin administration, we're going to lay more pipelines ... build more nuclear plants ... create jobs with clean coal ... and move forward on solar, wind, geothermal, and other alternative sources.
Sarah Palin, RNC Acceptance Speech
Despite a multitude of temptations, Patriots and Peoples shall not become a blog about current politics. Patriots and Peoples concerns history, albeit the spin given to history when ideology drives the research. But that’s quite different than dissecting convention speeches, opinion polls, campaign strategies, and voter despair. Often it is difficult to resist commenting on the executive experience gained bringing a Fred Meyer to Wasilla, Alaska, or the lack of accomplishments by a Presidential candidate who co-sponsored the Coburn-Obama Transparency Act (McCain signed on as an additional sponsor).

Plenty of bloggers write continuously about the drama of American politics. I read them. I read such things as Brad DeLong’s obituary for trickle-down economics, Doghouse Riley’s screeds against self-important, overpaid pundits, Prerna’s exposés, fact checking by the Reality-Based Community: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” Victor Davis Hanson's Pajamas Media column, and many others. I seek a breadth of perspectives and return to those that write well.

In politics I seek the balance that I demand in history. Of course I have my views, but they are not dogma.

"She said she'd like to support McCain but felt she couldn't at this particular time because of his stand on ANWR," said the governor's spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow.
Anchorage Daily News, 3 February 2008
Indeed, it was the prospect that an Alaska Governor on the Republican ticket, and her prospects of shifting John McCain’s previous position against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, that sent me to the Jimmy Carter Library where I was able to reread his 1980 State of the Union Address.

Clear and Present Danger

President Jimmy Carter called for a comprehensive energy policy that focused on conservation and a diverse portfolio. I think it’s fair to say that he failed to get his ideas implemented.

The crises in Iran and Afghanistan have dramatized a very important lesson: Our excessive dependence on foreign oil is a clear and present danger to our Nation's security. The need has never been more urgent. At long last, we must have a clear, comprehensive energy policy for the United States.

As you well know, I have been working with the Congress in a concentrated and persistent way over the past 3 years to meet this need. We have made progress together. But Congress must act promptly now to complete final action on this vital energy legislation. Our Nation will then have a major conservation effort, important initiatives to develop solar power, realistic pricing based on the true value of oil, strong incentives for the production of coal and other fossil fuels in the United States, and our Nation's most massive peacetime investment in the development of synthetic fuels.

The American people are making progress in energy conservation. Last year we reduced overall petroleum consumption by 8 percent and gasoline consumption by 5 percent below what it was the year before. Now we must do more.

After consultation with the Governors, we will set gasoline conservation goals for each of the 50 States, and I will make them mandatory if these goals are not met.

I've established an import ceiling for 1980 of 8.2 million barrels a day—well below the level of foreign oil purchases in 1977. I expect our imports to be much lower than this, but the ceiling will be enforced by an oil import fee if necessary. I'm prepared to lower these imports still further if the other oil-consuming countries will join us in a fair and mutual reduction. If we have a serious shortage, I will not hesitate to impose mandatory gasoline rationing immediately.

The single biggest factor in the inflation rate last year, the increase in the inflation rate last year, was from one cause: the skyrocketing prices of OPEC oil. We must take whatever actions are necessary to reduce our dependence on foreign oil—and at the same time reduce inflation.

As individuals and as families, few of us can produce energy by ourselves. But all of us can conserve energy—every one of us, every day of our lives. Tonight I call on you—in fact, all the people of America—to help our Nation. Conserve energy. Eliminate waste. Make 1980 indeed a year of energy conservation.
Jimmy Carter, State of the Union Address 1980, 23 January 1980
It was hard to get behind Carter in 1980, and not much easier today. Never the less, I wonder how his policy ideas might have helped avert some of our present struggles.

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