22 October 2008

Chess, Checkers, Ping-Pong

Was Richard Nixon a chess player? That's one of many insignificant questions that will join the significant inquiries as I read through Rick Perlstein's Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008). The subtitle provokes the first significant question: How did the political ascendancy of Richard Nixon stimulate internal cultural conflict?

This question will wait until I read the text.

Chess was important for a brief moment before the world knew about Watergate, but after some of the crimes had been committed. A lone American had taken on the Soviet Empire in a battle over sixty-four squares. This American, Robert J. "Bobby" Fischer, had a lot of pecularities and was in danger of forfeiting the World Chess Championship match with Boris Spassky. Henry Kissinger called the chess player.
This is the worst player in the world calling the best player in the world.
Kissinger to Fischer*
A glance through the index of Nixonland turns up no evidence that Fischer's chess exploits and Nixon's interest in them is narrated in its more than seven hundred pages. There are nearly a dozen references to checkers, on the other hand, and there is a chapter entitled "Ping-Pong".

Checkers was a dog, and Nixon's Checker's Speech was one of the greatest political speeches in the twentieth century.

Nixon played the pivotal role in the opening of communist China to American enterprise. Someone dubbed it Ping-Pong Diplomacy and the name stuck. American ping-pong players traveled to China for a match in which they got schooled by superior players, but the United States thanked the players for their sacrifice.

I'm paying a lot of attention to chess these days, and logging my dogged support of a Russian player--Vladimir Kramnik--who appears on the verge of a devastating loss to an Indian--Viswanathan Anand. The battle is taking place in Bonn, the former capital of West Germany that also served as capital of a reunited Germany until the government was tranferred back to Berlin in 1998-1999.

Bobby Fischer died in January. But his spirit has a way of inserting itself into contemporary chess events. Can Nixon be far behind?

*Quoted in David Edmonds and John Eidinow, Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How a Lone American Star Defeated the Soviet Chess Machine (New York: Harper Collins, 2004), 143.

15 October 2008

Creative Anachronism

Alexis de Tocqueville was sent to the United States by the French government in 1831 and spent nine months traveling through the young nation. Upon his return to France, he offered his observations in De la démocratie en Amerique (Democracy in America) published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840. It is a rare American historian that never finds reason to quote from this seminal work. His observations and insights regarding Jacksonian America often seem to transcend time. His quest for irony led to such passages as the observation that vis-à-vis Europe women in America experience both more and less liberty.
In America the independence of woman is irrecoverably lost in the bonds of matrimony. If an unmarried woman is less constrained there than elsewhere, a wife is subjected to stricter obligations. The former makes her father's house an abode of freedom and of pleasure; the latter lives in the home of her husband as if it were a cloister.
Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2, 212.*
If mid-twentieth century readers found insight in his observations on equality of the sexes, perhaps also his discussion of the arts in a democracy offers enduring insights. Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen think so.

Defining “Americanness”

Near the beginning of “Colonial Adolescence, 1707-63,” the second chapter of A Patriot’s History of the United States (2004), Schweikart and Allen offer this synopsis.
The “intermingling of classes and constant rising and sinking” of individuals in an egalitarian society, Tocqueville wrote, had a detrimental effect on the arts: painting, literature, music, theater, and education. In place of high or refined mores, Tocqueville concluded, Americans had built a democratic culture that was highly accessible but ultimately lacking in the brilliance that characterized European art forms.
Schweikart and Allen, A Patriot’s History, 39.
This anachronistic introduction of Tocqueville into the future United States a full century before his historic visit provides a segue to discussion of the tendency of American colonials to imitate Europeans in the arts, as well as eighteenth century American colleges, colonial drama and music, and some of the achievements of Benjamin Franklin.

“In What Spirit the Americans Cultivate the Arts”

In the second volume, eleventh chapter, Tocqueville observes that in a democracy people “will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful be useful” (50). Where “men are forever rising or sinking on the social scale,” Tocqueville suggests, “desires grow much faster than their fortunes” and short cuts are sought (51). Those whose “wants are above their means” accept “imperfect satisfaction; the resulting market forces induce artisans “to produce with great rapidity many imperfect commodities” produced by craftsmen “in a state of accomplished mediocrity” (52). Not only does the quality of work suffer due to efforts to put products in the hands of the many, but exertions are made to make these works appear better than they are. Tocqueville used the term “hypocrisy of luxury” to refer to facile qualities and fakes, citing the easy manufacture of fake diamonds. Some classic architecture in New York provided this memorable experience.
When I arrived for the first time at New York, by that part of the Atlantic Ocean which is called the East River, I was surprised to perceive along the shore, at some distance from the city, a number of little palaces of white marble, several of which were of classic architecture. When I went the next day to inspect more closely one which had particularly attracted my notice, I found that its walls were of whitewashed brick, and its columns of painted wood. All the edifices that I had admired the night before were of the same kind.
Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2, 54.
It takes very little imagination for cynics to apply phrases like “accomplished mediocrity” to the work of well-trained authors from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop when the writing of one is indistinguishable from another, or to the latest run of Hollywood films and the American lust for pyrotechnics and other special effects, or to our everyday cuisine—there is certainly plenty of hypocrisy in the “photos” of fast food burgers that hang in American “restaurants” all over the world.

In Tocqueville’s analysis this mediocrity is tied to social democracy—people rising and sinking in status. Were these conditions present before the American Revolution?

*Edition cited:
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2 volumes, edited by Phillips Bradley (New York: Vintage Books, 1945).

The entire text of Democracy in America is available by link from, a site put up by C-SPAN, to the University of Virginia’s Crossroads Project. The C-SPAN site has useful supplemental information. It is also available at Project Gutenberg—Volume 1 and Volume 2.

13 October 2008

Lee Resolution

The Lee Resolution is the first of “100 Milestone Documents” presented online by the National Archives and Records Administration. This site offers an image of each original document and brief historical notes regarding its significance.

Approved by the Continental Congress, 2 July 1776
Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.
Lee Resolution showing congressional vote, July 2, 1776; Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774-1783; Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789, Record Group 360; National Archives.
Richard Henry Lee penned these words per instructions “to declare the United Colonies free and independent states, absolved from all allegiance to or dependence upon the Crown or Parliament of Great Britain” (as quoted in Samuel Eliot Morison, “Prelude to Independence: The Virginia Resolutions of May 15, 1776,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series 8 [1951], 488). Lee introduced his resolution 7 June, which was seconded by John Adams, and Congress adopted the resolution 2 July 1776.

The Virginia Resolutions were read in the Continental Congress 27 June, a Committee formed for drafting the Declaration reported the next day, and the Declaration of Independence itself was adopted 4 July.

Efforts to assess the significance of the Lee Resolution have included assertions that “Independence Day was properly the day on which Congress passed the resolution which actually established our independence; and that day was July 2” (Charles Warren, “Fourth of July Myths,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series 2 [1945], 238). A similar spin was put forth in “July 4, 1776, An Imagi-Holiday” at the blog History Is Elementary. She suggests pedagogy of discovery:
Is elementaryhistoryteacher calling for a change in the date for our independence celebrations? No, I’m not. What I am calling for is greater effort on the part of those who teach social studies to know their content concerning myth versus fact and share that information with students. Throw out some teasers to students, provide them with the materials, and let them discover how we decided the 4th instead of the 2nd would be our “Epoch” or Independence Day.
She also provides a link to the History News Network’s “Top 5 Myths about the Fourth of July.” Myth #1 is that the United States declared its independence on July 4. The HNN staff writers explain, “America's independence was actually declared by the Continental Congress on July 2, 1776.”

A reader of History Is Elementary offered a cautionary note regarding claims that the “wrong” day is celebrated every summer, highlighting the crux of Independence:
Liberty, self-determination, the franchise and the founding of a glorious Republic. That, at least, is what I celebrate on the fourth day of July.
pbuxton, “comment

Patriots and Peoples

A Patriot’s History of the United States by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen offers John Adams’ language that “Congress has passed the most important resolution … ever taken in America” (ellipses in original, Schweikart and Allen, 80). The footnote identifies their source for Adams’ words as a secondary source: Page Smith, John Adams, 1735-1784, vol 1 (1962). The previous paragraph mentions that delegates to the Continental Congress were instructed to support independence; it highlights the leadership role of Virginia through the colony establishing a republican government in June.

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States does not specifically mention the Lee Resolution. There is an allusion to the action where he notes, the Continental Congress “organized a committee to draw up the Declaration of Independence . . . It was adopted by the Congress on July 2, and officially proclaimed on July 4, 1776” (Zinn, 71). The next paragraph discusses precedents in resolutions adopted in North Carolina two months earlier, and quotes from one adopted by Malden, Massachusetts.

Voices of a People’s History, edited by Zinn and Anthony Arnove offers that “[a]t least ninety state and local declarations of independence” were issued in the months leading up to July 1776. This information is part of the headnote to “New York Mechanics Declaration of Independence” proclaimed 29 May 1776 (86-87).

The narrative focus through this section in both A Patriot’s History and A People’s History moves from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense to the Declaration of Independence.

12 October 2008

A Literary Artifact

A literary artifact in honor of Columbus Day. In this passage from a Brazilian novel of a century ago, the protagonist reflects on the memory of his first kiss.
Even now I have the echo of it in my ears. The satisfaction I felt was tremendous. Columbus felt no greater when he discovered America, and pardon the banality in consideration of the aptness: every adolescent has within him an undiscovered world, an admiral and an October dawn. I made other discoveries later; none so dazzled me.
Machado de Assis, (trans. Helen Caldwell), Dom Casmurro, 71-72.
Dom Casmurro was published in Brazil in 1900; the English translation appeared in the United States in 1953. It is a tremendous book.

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