Category Archives: Uncategorized

Richard Attenborough, 1923-2014

Two films top my list of all-time favorites.  Richard Attenborough gave an unforgettable performance in the first, and he directed the second.  In both cases, his work was flawless.  Absolutely flawless.

I knew his health had declined over the past few years, but that didn’t soften the blow when I heard that he passed away today.  He made us all believe in the incredible and the inspiring, and he’ll be missed.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

OT: Pitch in and help Iraq’s persecuted minorities

The situation for Iraq’s ancient Christian community, and for Iraq’s other persecuted religious minorities, is pretty dire, so much so that it’s easy to assume ordinary folks like us can’t do anything about it.  But if you’ve got a few dollars to spare, here’s a way to pitch in:

The Knights of Columbus announced today that is establishing a fund to assist those – particularly Christians as well as other religious minorities – facing a horrific and violent persecution and possible extinction in Iraq and the surrounding regions.

The Knights has pledged an initial $500,000 and will match an additional $500,000 in donations from the public.

“The unprovoked and systematic persecution and violent elimination of Middle East Christians, as well as other minority groups, especially in Iraq, has created an enormous humanitarian crisis,” said Supreme Knight Carl Anderson. “Pope Francis has asked the world for prayers and support for those affected by this terrible persecution, and we are asking our members, and all people of good will, to pray for those persecuted and support efforts to assist them by donating to this fund.”

Anderson added: “It has shocked the conscience of the world that people are systematically being purged from the region where their families have lived for millennia – simply for their faith. It is imperative that we stand in solidarity with them in defense of the freedom of conscience, and provide them with whatever relief we can.”

Those seeking to assist with the relief efforts can donate to K of C Christian Refugee Relief by visiting www.kofc.org/Iraq or by sending checks or money orders to: K of C Christian Refugee Relief, Knights of Columbus Charities, P.O. Box 1966, New Haven, CT 06509-1966.

Donations are tax deductible to the extent allowed by law. Knights of Columbus Charities, Inc., is recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a charitable organization under section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code, and 100 percent of all donations collected by Knights of Columbus Charities, Inc., will be used for humanitarian assistance for those Christians – as well as other religious minorities –being persecuted or displaced in Iraq and the surrounding region.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Bat-birthday

In case you haven’t heard, it’s Batman Day.  I’ve been a fan since I was about eight; the Tim Burton film was probably the first major movie that I went nuts over, and I accumulated a pretty good stash of Bat-collectibles over the course of my childhood.  I still think Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns is one of the greatest works of modern fiction.  Seriously, if you’ve never read it, get yourself a copy.

It’s an unlikely concept for an enduring cultural icon, when you think about it—a vigilante who dresses like a flying rodent.  What accounts for a career that’s lasted more than seven decades?  I think it’s a combination of factors.  The character has attracted good writers and artists, and he has the best rogue’s gallery in comics.  Most important of all, I think, is the fact that underneath that cowl is a man of flesh and blood instead of steel.

Anyway, happy 75th, Mr. Wayne.  Here’s to another three quarters of a century.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A few links to commemorate D-Day

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Do historians understand the history of science better than scientists themselves do?

Historians of science and practitioners of science haven’t always gotten along. There’s an interesting piece about their stormy relationship in The Chronicle of Higher Ed.  (The article’s behind a paywall, but you can get a taste of it at HNN.)

Although it entered academe as science’s explanatory sidekick, over the past few decades the history of science has emerged a full-fledged discipline, drawing practitioners mostly from the humanities.…Where scholars based in the sciences documented a rational march toward knowledge, historians—inspired by Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions—have asked how science is socially constructed and culturally received.

In other words, historians of science who are trained as scientists see a progression toward the truth, as scientists generally tend to have a great deal of faith in their own discipline’s capacity to get things figured out.  It’s analogous to the Whig interpretation of history as a progression toward greater human freedom, except in this case it’s progressing toward knowledge and truth.  All those dumb guys in the past were wrong, but over time there were smarter guys who started figuring things out.  And finally we come to us, and we’ve got more figured out that anybody.

Historians of science who are trained as historians, on the other hand, see the history of science the same way they see the history of any other human activity—subject to power relationships, personal biases, vagaries of fashion, and all the other foibles and quirks to which groups of humans are prone.  Humans and their foibles, after all, are the stuff of history (and of the humanities generally).

Of course, historians sometimes fall into a view of their own field of study as an inexorable upward progression, too. After all, when we talk about historiography, don’t we tell ourselves that all those benighted historians of days gone by ignored race/class/gender/memory/discourse/whatever, and that we know better now because we’re hip to all this stuff?  Sure we do.

But I think historians are a more attuned to the human factors that influence fields of study, since humanity is basically the subject of history.  Because historians study humans (and human institutions, societies, and so on), they assume that the discipline of history itself is influenced by human factors.  You don’t always see farther by clambering up the shoulders of your predecessors.  Sometimes you have to knock over whatever those predecessors are standing on.  In a methods course my first year of grad school, we read Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, because his arguments could apply to history or any other field of study as well as science.  And in all the courses I took, we spent much of our time discussing how historians’ conclusions and interpretations have developed out of the social circumstances in which scholars have worked.  It’s a basic part of getting ready to do history.

I can understand why scientists would be uncomfortable when historians point out the role of human foibles and quirks in the development of scientific knowledge.  But an awareness of the human factors that influence scientific thought can only make science better, because scientists who have that awareness will take care that their conclusions aren’t the result of these non-scientific factors.

Furthermore, I think that coming to terms with the role of human foibles in scholarly endeavor is necessary because it means an awareness of the way things are.  Things like power relationships and the vagaries of fashion do, in fact, play a role in determining what scholars think about the world.

But maybe I think this because I’m a historian by training instead of a scientist.  To borrow some terminology from Kuhn, my “paradigm” is a historical one, influenced by a belief in the role of human contingency, human institutions, human shortcomings, and so on.

One thing scientists and historians should share is a devotion to the truth and a belief that we can, at the very least, approach it.  If approaching it means incorporating the insights of other disciplines into our own, then so be it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Wyatt’s weapons

A few days ago, somebody paid $225,000 for a revolver carried by Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, perhaps the one he used in the O.K. Corral gunfight. The gun came from the estate of Glenn Boyer, a controversial Earp researcher and collector who died last year.

Was this the revolver Earp carried to the Old West’s most famous gunfight? Maybe, maybe not. The serial number’s been removed, but X-ray tests indicate that it matched a weapon Earp owned. That doesn’t mean he used it at the O.K. Corral, of course. Western researcher Bob Boze Bell writes, “Wyatt Earp owned over two dozen weapons while he was in Tombstone.” Still, any Earp-owned gun is an extremely cool thing to have.

Probably the only eyewitness description we have of Earp’s weaponry on the day of the gunfight comes from a Tombstone butcher named Bauer who witnessed some of the events leading to the shootout. At a hearing held a few weeks later, he claimed under oath that Earp was carrying “an old pistol, pretty large, 14 or 16 inches long, it seemed to me.”

Wyatt Earp in the 1880s. Wikimedia Commons

That’s pretty darned long for a revolver, and way too long for the standard single-action Colts that most people associate with frontier gunslingers. Maybe Bauer was mistaken. Or maybe his testimony reveals a kernel of truth at the core of some gunfighting folklore.

Stuart Lake, one of Wyatt’s early biographers, claimed that dime novelist Ned Buntline was so grateful to Earp and a few fellow Kansas lawmen for providing him with material that he gave each man a custom-made Colt revolver with an extra-long barrel. Put a ten or twelve-inch barrel on a Colt, and you’d end up with a gun long enough to fit Bauer’s description.

The problem is that Lake was to Wyatt Earp what Parson Weems was to George Washington–a biographer who wrote down as much legend as fact. There’s no solid evidence that the “Buntline Special” existed, let alone that Earp had one with him in Tombstone. Colt has no records of any such order.  Some folks have accused Lake of making the whole thing up, but he apparently believed the Buntline story, because he tried to track down the pistol’s whereabouts.

Interestingly, a Tombstone gunfighter named “Buckskin” Frank Leslie ordered a special long-barreled Colt in 1881, the same year as the Earps’ showdown near the O.K. Corral. Did he see Wyatt carrying an extra large pistol and decide he wanted one of his own? Some writers have raised the possibility.

Bauer also testified that Wyatt was wearing a short coat that day, and that he drew his pistol out of one of its pockets, which indicates that he had the gun tucked in his waistband and pulled it through a special pocket slit. But at least one O.K. Corral researcher has argued that Earp put on a specially modified overcoat before the gunfight, one which had deep, customized pockets lined with leather to make a less conspicuous holster for a longer pistol.  And some Earp scholars think he didn’t use any kind of Colt six-shooter at all during the Tombstone shootout, but a Smith & Wesson instead.  As you can tell, there’s quite an extensive secondary literature on the O.K. Corral gunfight, with incredibly minute analyses of who carried which type of gun, who was wearing what, who shot when, and who said what before the shooting started. I’ve seen reconstructions of the armaments and tactics in that tiny Arizona lot that are so painstaking and thorough they’d put any study of Antietam or Gettysburg to shame. It’s a fascinating little historiographical niche.

We’ll probably never know for sure whether Earp owned a souped-up Colt, or which of his guns he used at the O.K. Corral fight. But the uncertainty hasn’t stopped showbiz from customizing Wyatt’s sidearms on the big or small screen. ABC’s Wyatt Earp TV series featured the Buntline, and in the movie Tombstone Kurt Russell’s Earp goes to the shootout armed with a special long-barreled revolver.

Many years ago I got to hold the six-shooter Russell used in the movie, one of many singular experiences that resulted from having a mom who enjoys researching about gunslingers. Maybe someday I’ll blog more about all that. For now, I’ll just say that if you think the Civil War enthusiast community is colorful, you should spend some time in Earpdom.

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Paul Ryan proposes eliminating the NEH

Not cutting it, mind you, but doing away with it entirely.

It’s hard to overstate how important the National Endowment for the Humanities is to historical education and preservation in this country. It provides critical help to small museums, historical societies, archives, researchers, and documentary filmmakers.

If you’ve ever visited a history exhibit, used an archive or historical society to research your family background, or watched a historical documentary, there’s a good chance you’ve benefited from NEH support.

And the NEH budget accounts for barely a drop in the ocean of federal expenditures. Cutting it would have very little impact on overall government spending, but would drastically affect those institutions that benefit from it. In short, it’s a terrible idea.

I say again: Russell Kirk defined a conservative as “a person who endeavors to conserve the best in our traditions and our institutions,” and noted that conservatives believe the past to be “a great storehouse of wisdom.” If we can’t spare even a small portion of our public funds for history and culture, then what is it we’re trying to conserve?

Hat tip: John Fea

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized