Category Archives: Uncategorized

The USSR was a sick Triceratops

For my America and the World course I’ve been reading We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History by John Lewis Gaddis.  The twentieth century isn’t really my thing, but I’ve really enjoyed this book.

One of the themes running through We Now Know is that the Soviet Union operated with a number of disadvantages.  Its authoritarian structure could not create and maintain alliances as well as the democratic U.S., which was more accustomed to compromises and building coalitions.  The USSR therefore had to coerce its “allies,” whereas allies of the U.S. enjoyed more flexibility and initiative.  And since there was nobody in a position to say “no” to a Stalin or a Khrushchev, nobody could stop them when they pursued a course that was misguided, as they tended to do often.  (Gaddis notes that “there seems to have been something about authoritarians that caused them to lose touch with reality.”)

One of the few things the USSR had going for it was the appearance of military strength, which brings us to this delightful metaphor:

The end of the Cold War made it blindingly clear that military strength does not always determine the course of great events: the Soviet Union collapsed, after all, with its arms and armed forces fully intact.  Deficiencies in other kids of power—economic, ideological, cultural, moral—caused the USSR to lose its superpower status, and we can now see that a slow but steady erosion in those non-military capabilities had been going on for some time.

To visualize what happened, imagine a troubled triceratops.  From the outside,  as rivals contemplated its sheer size, tough skin, bristling armament, and aggressive posturing, the beast looked sufficiently formidable that none dared tangle with it.  Appearances deceived, though, for within its digestive, circulatory, and respiratory systems were slowly clogging up, and then shutting down.  There were few external signs of this until the day the creature was found with all four feet in the air, still awesome but now bloated, stiff, and quite dead.  The moral of the fable is that armaments make impressive exoskeletons, but a shell alone ensures the survival of no animal and no state (p. 284).

Looks like she’s come down with a nasty case of perestroika, but we’ll need to check her poop to be sure. Image via http://www.moviemag.org/2013/04/review-giveaway-jurassic-park-3d/

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Quotations of Chairman Spammer

These words of wisdom turned up in my pending comments: “When some one searches for his vital thing, therefore he/she desires to be available that in detail, so that thing is maintained over here.”

How profound.  How pithy.  And how eternally true.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 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