September 11

I wrote the piece below on the second anniversary of the attacks in 2003, at which time my wife and I were graduate students at the University of Minnesota. The attacks were fresh enough in my mind that I think it can count as a primary source, and I repost it here for the twentieth anniversary for interest’s sake. If there is any modification to be made at this point, it sure looks like Iraq was a huge waste of lives and money and that not all people “yearn for freedom” the way we like to think they do. The recent debacle in Afghanistan has also revealed the limits of Wilsonian world-building. 

Note the changes in technology: dial-up Internet, television over the airwaves, photocopying documents to send them in the mail, etc.

****

I missed September 11. Anne awoke early to go into the university to teach, and I slept in until about 9:00 a.m. When I got up, instead of going onto the Internet as I often do, I finished off my lecture (I was teaching my own class on Tuesday evenings). I also wrote a letter to American Airlines: we had just returned from our honeymoon to South Africa and I was wondering if I could get the frequent flyer points for the entire trip and not just the officially American Airlines leg, i.e. Minneapolis to Chicago. I walked in to school around noon, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary, either on the way in or when I got to the library to make photocopies of the boarding passes for the letter. I mailed it, and went up to the history department. As I got off the elevator I ran into the graduate secretary who told me that classes had just been cancelled for the rest of the day. I asked why. “Because of the World Trade Center coming down,” she replied. “What?” I said. “They blew up the World Trade Center.” “What are you talking about?!” “Oh, just go down to the lounge,” she said.

The lounge is a small room at the end of the hall with couches, a couple of bookcases full of books no one wants, a typewriter, and a small rabbit-eared television with a “Kill Your Television” bumper sticker on the top. I didn’t think that it actually worked, but apparently it did: a small crowd was gathered around, and it was showing again and again not just airplanes hitting the two towers of World Trade Center but the towers actually falling down. Falling down! Incredible! There’s no more World Trade Center! My friend Troy was there, and I asked him what the hell was happening. He filled me in: two planes were flown in to the World Trade Center, another plane had hit the Pentagon, and a fourth had gone down in Pennsylvania. Also, a car bomb had gone off in front of the State Department. He thought that it was probably the same type of people who had bombed the WTC in 1993. I was stunned. I watched the TV for a bit, and then went down to the computer lab to look on the Internet. Every single news site was full of information about the attacks. As many as 50,000 people could have been killed. The president was under heavy guard at an air force base somewhere. Fighter jets had been scrambled. All commercial flights had been grounded. Muslims were bracing for a backlash. Everyone was braced for further attacks. An email announced that an interfaith prayer rally in memory of the victims, and urging calm on survivors, was to take place on the Mall.

I went up a floor to see Anne. On the way I heard one professor saying that we shouldn’t cancel classes, but that we should use them to discuss the issue. I heard another saying, “This is big. This is Pearl Harbor.” I saw Anne, who was going to the prayer meeting with her advisor. I elected not to go: I had a suspicion that it would turn into an anti-backlash rally before any sort of backlash was apparent, which would have simply annoyed me. Instead, I just walked home. At this point I did notice the lack of airplanes in the sky, which is a novelty for Minneapolis since the airport is quite close to the downtown and planes are constantly flying overhead. Once home I turned on the television and sat hypnotized. I still wasn’t quite sure what exactly was going on, and that’s what I remember most about the day: the sheer novelty of it, how it didn’t seem to relate to anything that had ever happened before. Sure, there was the Oklahoma City bombing, but this seemed to be different in kind as well as degree. Such a reaction was shared by others: because no one knew quite what to think, an eerie calm seemed to pervade the reactions of people on the television. There was an interview with one guy who had been in the WTC and had gotten out, and who was matter-of-factly describing hearing the announcement, and simply walking down the stairs and out into the street. How much different from the Columbine massacre of two years previous: everyone knew then what a “school shooting” was, even if that was a particularly egregious one, so we had the usual images of teenagers hugging each other, soccer moms overjoyed to discover their offspring safe, grief counselors telling you that it’s OK to talk about your feelings, and almost instantaneous squabbling over whether it was caused by lack of gun control or whether it was caused by violent movies and video games. Mark Steyn wrote later that “it is very, very rare for the media to be caught so off-guard by an event that they lose control of their ability to determine its meaning,” and that was certainly true on the day.

Of course we all know now what “September eleventh” (complete with its assonance and amphibrachic rhythm) means. The attacks were the work of al-Qaeda, the same people who had bombed the USS Cole and the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Their operatives, armed with nothing more than boxcutters, hijacked four airplanes and used them as guided bombs against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and would have hit some fourth place had not the passengers of United Airlines flight 93 risen up against them and brought the plane down. Otherwise there was no bomb outside the State Department, only 3000 people were killed, and the anti-Muslim backlash was remarkably subdued. The only follow-up attacks consisted of anthrax in the mail to the likes of Senator Daschle and the National Enquirer, if these were connected to Sept. 11 at all.

And US foreign policy has revolved around it ever since. President Bush declared a “war on terror,” and since the Taliban regime of Afghanistan refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, he ordered it toppled, which the military did in fairly short order. After months of negotiations with the UN, it did the same to the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, on the ostensible principle that Saddam had chemical weapons which he might share with terrorists, but also because he had never really fulfilled the cease-fire conditions of the first Gulf War, that Iraq could potentially serve as a model for a secular, liberal Arab state, thereby striking at one of the root causes of terrorism, and that he was a plain old fashioned tyrant whom the world is better off without. Whether this will work or not remains to be seen. I supported the war, and I still have confidence that what will come ahead will be better than what existed before, but I can’t help but feeling that time is not on our side.

Otherwise September 11 made me even more of a news junkie, and a conservative, than I already was. All attempts to portray the attack as blowback for the past misadventures of American foreign policy or the injustice of the world economic system struck me as hollow, something that would appear to be true if you were deeply invested in leftist ideology but which simply didn’t fit the facts. The airplanes were not piloted by the families of the Chilean disappeared or the survivors of a Contra massacre, nor by anyone who expressed solidarity even with the Palestinians. They weren’t poor, either: bin Laden is quite wealthy, and the hijackers were apparently well-off, with other life options available to them. No, to me the event blew the lid off the polite fiction, pervasive in academia, that all cultures are equal, and no one is ever really to blame, but if someone must be blamed, it should probably be the US. Robert Fulford wrote that the event

challenged the gentle and self-deluded way we have thought about human relations…. We try desperately to be agreeable and to deny that ugly differences among us exist. In this milieu, the atrocity of Sept. 11 was a foreign object, hard as anthracite. Perhaps we can identify it with an ancient word, evil. That term frightens us: liberalism decided long ago that “evil” should not, if one follows liberal thinking, exist.

And Christopher Hitchens, no conservative, famously wrote that

What the terrorists abominate about “the West” is not what Western liberals don’t like and can’t defend about their own system, but what they do like about it and must defend: its emancipated women, its scientific enquiry, its separation of religion from the state.

To express solidarity with or even to make excuses for al-Qaeda seemed to me to be a great moral and strategic blunder. The US, even when headed by George Bush, is not always wrong.

All quotes above, by the way, have been culled from my file of Sept. 11 material that I started to keep and which I have open before me. Some of the commentary was first-rate, and some of it was fatuous drivel, because the pain-feelers and concern-sharers eventually did arrive. There was a “message of support and recommendation from the International Students’ Office,” including:

Some of you may feel that you have not really faced harassment, but that you have experienced a change in attitudes or an unfriendly climate in your department or work place. Even though you may feel that there are no concrete incidents that you consider harassment, we are interested in hearing about your experience and want to discuss strategies you or we can take feel safe and comfortable during your studies here.

And there was this message from the MacArthur fellows:

On Friday, Sept. 28, a group of MacArthur students and faculty met to discuss how our community could respond to the events of Sept. 11. The clear consensus was that we have a responsibility to draw from the MacArthur program’s intellectual skills and resources to stimulate critical reflection on several issues — in particular, the ongoing anti-Arab and anti-Moslem violence and racial profiling; new challenges to our political and civil liberties; the militarization of the US state; and more.

Note the smug elision between “we’re smart” and “we hold the correct opinions.” How about using your superior brainpower to come up with ways to prevent this sort of thing from happening again? As for the International Students Office, the theme of that message was clearly: “Please make us feel important! Please justify our jobs!” I wanted to tell them that although I was shocked by the attacks, I was very pleased that something good had come out of them, namely that the “climate” in America had changed vastly for the better: the country was united as I had never seen it before, and all the petty crap that normally fills its consciousness (that summer: Gary Condit, Chandra Levy, Britney Spears, ’N Sync, and Survivor) was placed firmly in perspective if not entirely forgotten, and finally that their patronizing and intrusive concern about the state of our emotions was not helping. Fuck off, you wankers!*

But I dare say Sept. 11 has been forgotten, in its way. Mark Steyn is fond of designating obsolete or trivial things as “so Sept. 10,” but in its way Sept. 11 has become Sept. 10. Time marches on, of course, and the first anniversary placed a natural moratorium on expressions of grief. But it seems to me that the Iraq war was more important in this respect. A few people protested the Afghan war, but many, many more people protested the war on Iraq, on the principle that it wasn’t retaliatory but “preemptive,” therefore ushering in a dangerous new era in American foreign policy. That the administration decided to seek UN approval for this adventure gave plenty of time for the anti-war movement to organize itself, and its failure to get that approval looked particularly bad. Furthermore, the controversy over the war shattered the unity that we had in the fall of 2001, and completely overshadowed any sympathy the US may have won abroad. If for a brief while it was cool to be American that moment has long passed, because the US has reverted to type: no longer the victim, it is once again the bully. Thus it has traded good will for “results,” in much the same way that the Jews, in founding the state of Israel, decided that they weren’t going to be nice anymore, and are quite unapologetic about killing their enemies.

Was it a good trade? I admit that it’s nice to be liked. Do you remember U2’s performance in memory of 9/11 at the Superbowl in 2002? Last summer my wife and I were visiting my parents in Canada, and we had a rental car with Minnesota plates. We had gone downtown to do some shopping and parked on the street; when we returned to the car we discovered that we had a ticket, only it wasn’t a ticket at all but a free parking pass issued by the Chamber of Commerce, on which the meter maid had written, “God bless America!” I’m not even American and I got choked up at this, but I wonder if anyone gets this treatment anymore. I personally don’t ever want to see another attack on the order of Sept. 11, and I am gladly willing to forego the good will of others to do so. The question, of course, is whether the war on Iraq and the other facets of the “War on Terror” have made another attack not less, but more, likely. Frankly I think there’s a lot to be said for the notion that we have crippled al-Qaeda and that they have been reduced to fighting in the Middle East only — we’ve taken the fight to them. But can we afford to stay there? Who knows? Americans are a can-do people and this project may just work… or it may not.

Meanwhile, on cue, Americans are back to their usual self-absorption. With the victory in Iraq things are back to “normal,” and so they have retreated to Plato’s cave and the comfort of stories about Laci Peterson, Kobe Bryant, and Ashton Kutcher & Demi Moore. Sigh.

Allow me to say, in closing, that I’m quite embarrassed actually to have sent a letter to American Airlines asking for frequent flyer points, dated on a day that they had far, far more important things to worry about. (The reply, I’m relieved to say, came about two weeks later and was polite: they could give me points for the transatlantic flight, but not the London-Cape Town flight.)

* Of course I think that anti-Muslim prejudice is stupid and ugly, and if expressed physically met with the sternest possible punishment. It’s just that the assumption that most ordinary white Americans are latent racists, just waiting for an excuse to act on their hatred, is a gross libel. And longtime readers will know that I don’t care much for aggressive victimhood, either. Dirty looks and name-calling may be hurtful to schoolchildren, but adults should know how to ignore them.

Addendum

Recently spotted in the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota: a memorial to 9/11, in particular to Tom Burnett, a native of Bloomington and leader of the Flight 93 revolt. 

Even Faster

Earlier on this blog we noted a Business Insider story that claimed that an iron cap placed atop an underground nuclear test in 1957 shot upwards at a speed of 125,000 miles per hour, allegedly becoming the “fastest manmade object ever.” Whether or not this actually happened, the record has been decisively broken by NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which “was clocked at over 330,000 miles per hour as it zipped through the sun’s outer atmosphere.”

I’m Henry the Eighth I Am

King Henry VIII (reigned 1509-1547) is the reason why the Church of England is no longer in communion with the Church of Rome, and is thus the ultimate founder of the Anglican faith. However, the Anglican communion does not celebrate him as such. The only defense that Anglicans can possibly offer is that he’s an example, like Judas, of God working good things through human malevolence. From the Guardian (hat tip: Paul Halsall):

Chilling find shows how Henry VIII planned every detail of Boleyn beheading

Archives discovery shows the calculated nature of the execution and reinforces the image of the king as a ‘pathological monster’

It is a Tudor warrant book, one of many in the National Archives, filled with bureaucratic minutiae relating to 16th-century crimes. But this one has an extraordinary passage, overlooked until now, which bears instructions from Henry VIII explaining precisely how he wanted his second wife, Anne Boleyn, to be executed.

In this document, the king stipulated that, although his queen had been “adjudged to death… by burning of fire… or decapitation”, he had been “moved by pity” to spare her the more painful death of being “burned by fire”. But he continued: “We, however, command that… the head of the same Anne shall be… cut off.”

Tracy Borman, a leading Tudor historian, described the warrant book as an astonishing discovery, reinforcing the image of Henry VIII as a “pathological monster”. She told the Observer: “As a previously unknown document about one of the most famous events in history, it really is golddust, one of the most exciting finds in recent years. What it shows is Henry’s premeditated, calculating manner. He knows exactly how and where he wants it to happen.” The instructions laid out by Henry are for Sir William Kingston, constable of the Tower, detailing how the king would rid himself of the “late queen of England, lately our wife, lately attainted and convicted of high treason”.

Boleyn was incarcerated in the Tower of London on 2 May 1536 for adultery. At her trial, she was depicted as unable to control her “carnal lusts”. She refuted the charges but was found guilty of treason and condemned to be burned or beheaded at “the King’s pleasure”.

Most historians agree the charges were bogus – her only crime had been her failure to give Henry a son. The most famous king in English history married six times in his relentless quest for a male heir. He divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, to marry Boleyn – the marriage led him to break with the Catholic church and brought about the English Reformation. Boleyn did bear him a daughter, who became Elizabeth I.

More at the link

Questions for Discussion

Does Louis XIV’s sobriquet “Sun King” presuppose a belief in heliocentrism?

Why did Hitler never demand the Swiss German cantons as he demanded Austria and the Sudetenland? Were they ever part of a conceptual Grossdeutschland?

In the history of modern France, why do the National Convention, the Directory, and the Consulate all count as the “First Republic,” when a new constitution in 1958 is judged to have produced a new republic, complete with its own ordinal number?

If the Holy Roman Emperorship was elective, why did the Hapsburgs hold it for so long?

Is there a usage distinction between Hapsburg and Habsburg? 

Majoring in History

From The Conversation:

Don’t despair if your teen wants to major in history instead of science

It might be your worst nightmare. Your child, sitting at the kitchen table, slides you a brochure from the local university.

“I’ve been thinking of majoring in history.”

Before you panic and begin calling the nearest computer science department, or worse, begin to crack those tired barista jokes, hear me out. This might just be the thing that your child, and our society, needs.

Choosing to become a history major is a future-friendly investment. A history degree teaches skills that are in short supply today: the ability to interpret context, and — crucially — where we’ve been, so as to better understand the world around us today and tomorrow.

We’ve never needed knowledge of history and the skills that come with the discipline more than we do now. Not only is it a good choice of a major for all the usual selfish reasons — you’ll likely get a good job, even if it takes a bit longer than the STEM disciplines, and more importantly you’ll probably be very happy with it.

But for our society more generally, we need a generation with deep capacities to acknowledge context and ambiguity. This idea of ambiguity not only pertains to interpreting the past based on a diverse body of incomplete sources, voices and outcomes, but also how our contemporary judgements of that record shape our choices today.

Our whole society hurts when students turn their back on history. A sense of history — where we have come from, the shared anchors of democratic society, the why and how of our current moment in time — is critical.

Read the whole thing.

Confederation

I am from Canada, and an historian, but I’m afraid that my knowledge of Canadian history is not what it ought to be. I was pleased, therefore, to be able to visit the Confederation Centre for the Arts in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and to see their exhibit and film on the Charlottetown Conference of 1864. This event was the first formal step towards the union (“confederation”) of four British North American colonies into a new polity, which was granted home rule (“dominion”) status within the British Empire on July 1, 1867.* This “Dominion of Canada,” like the American union to the south, was expandable, eventually stretching “From Sea to Sea,” and all the way to the North Pole for good measure. It achieved legal equality with the UK in 1931 and full constitutional independence in 1982, and is today a first-world liberal democracy, a member of the G7, NATO, NAFTA, and “Five Eyes,” with a 1.8 trillion dollar GDP, a “very high” human development index, and an international reputation for inoffensive blandness.

But we can certainly be very proud of ourselves.

From 1859, the UK Parliament was under the control of the Liberals, who favoured both dominion status and confederation: they wanted to offload the expense of running the colonies onto the colonies themselves, and were prepared to allow them greater control over their domestic affairs as the price of doing so; they also wanted to strengthen “British North America” against the United States, engaged as it was in a bloody Civil War, which might turn north at some point. Thus the Charlottetown Conference, which was held September 1-9, 1864. It was originally called to discuss the possibility of the union of the three British maritime colonies of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, and it was held in PEI because that colony was the most initially recalcitrant: it was the smallest, and feared that it would be swamped in any proposed union; it also was doing quite well economically and saw only a downside to joining up with others. But politicians from the United Province of Canada heard about the conference and asked to join, and they ended up dominating it, with John A. Macdonald and George Brown presenting a suave and ultimately convincing case for a union that included Canada (i.e., Ontario and Quebec), in between lots of eating, drinking, and socializing. Canada was itself a victim of frequent constitutional deadlock, and was presumably hoping for a new arrangement that might break this unfortunate situation. 

The film (which I wish I could find on YouTube) makes apparent that this gathering was a men’s club; no women formally participated, and no Native people either. All the same, the Conference was a success, leading to the Quebec Conference the next month, at which the 72 Resolutions were adopted, outlining the framework for a proposed union that potentially included Newfoundland, British Columbia, Vancouver Island (at the time a separate colony), and the Northwest Territory as well. The central issue was whether the union would be a unitary state or a decentralized country on the model of Switzerland; the result was a compromise between these two poles, with an elected lower house and an appointed senate. 

Two years of debate followed before the London Conference of 1866, which hammered out the British North America Act for the three colonies still interested: Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. The BNA Act received royal assent on March 29, 1867, and passed into law on July 1 of that year. Prince Edward Island ultimately decided that it was not interested, and even the other maritime provinces had misgivings: in New Brunswick, the Anti-Confederation Party won the 1865 election, but was defeated the following year; in Nova Scotia, Anti-Confederates won 36 out of 38 seats in the provincial legislature in 1867, unfortunately (for them) too late to prevent Confederation from happening. The Anti-Confederates thought that the Maritimes would be overwhelmed in the new country. Their opponents claimed  that the Maritimes were powerless anyway, and union with Canada was their only hope of influence, a view that ultimately prevailed.

This is the facade of Province House in Charlottetown, where the PEI Legislature sits and where the Charlottetown Conference was held. As you can see, it is currently under restoration, so this is the only view of it I can provide.

In the Confederation Centre for the Arts, however, one can see a replica conference table for delegates…

…and (for now) a statue of an important participant and first Prime Minister of the Dominion of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald. 

Prince Edward Island, as it happens, did join Confederation in 1873. In just a few years it went from prosperity to near bankruptcy, largely as the result of that archetypical nineteenth-century prestige project: a railway. The story was that the builders were paid by the mile, and that every small town on the island demanded railway access, so the railway took a meandering path across the island, raising its cost significantly. Canada agreed to take on these debts and to finish the project, and to provide a permanent link with the mainland; thus did PEI become a province, and Charlottetown can now boast that it is the cradle of Confederation. 

This was not the case in Newfoundland, which joined Confederation only in 1949. Newfoundlanders had heard of the Charlottetown Conference, but too late to attend it; they had come to the Quebec Conference, but only as observers. The Newfoundland election of 1869 was fought largely on the issue of Confederation, with the anti-confederates winning 21-9, and putting the issue to rest for the time being. It resurfaced in 1895 after the failure of Newfoundland’s Union and Commercial Banks, but no agreement with Canada could be reached, and Newfoundland retained its independence and weathered the financial storm. In 1907, as the result of the Imperial Conference that year, Newfoundland received dominion status within the British Empire – but this was largely a formality, as the colony had enjoyed responsible government since 1855. 

However, Newfoundland lost this status in 1934, and reverted to being a crown colony, the only dominion ever to do so. No longer did Newfoundland enjoy even responsible government – instead, it was run by an unelected seven-man Commission of Government, civil servants directly answerable to the British Parliament. The Great Depression had hit Newfoundland hard, and rather than default on its debt payments, it agreed to a suspension of its parliament until such time as it could become self-sustaining. But this never came to pass. According to Greg Malone in Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders (2012), a secret deal was struck between Canada and the United Kingdom during World War II which would deliver Newfoundland into Confederation, in return for Canada forgiving certain wartime loans it had made to the UK. With Newfoundland a province, Canada’s strategic position could be improved – it would have the Gander and Goose Bay airfields, at the time essential refueling stations for transatlantic flights, and the risk of Newfoundland joining the United States and becoming a sort of eastern Alaska would be obviated. Disputes over the fishery would be minimized, and Canada would get its hands on the potential mineral and hydroelectric resources of Labrador. 

Malone claims that Confederation may have been inevitable, but he insists that Newfoundland should have had responsible government reinstated first, as had been promised. Then the place would have been in a much better bargaining position with Canada. As it stands, the British essentially negotiated with Canada on behalf of Newfoundland, not particularly caring for the details so long as it was no longer their problem. A referendum on the arrangements was still seen as politically necessary, however, and three choices appeared on the ballot in 1948 – continuation of the Commission of Government, a return of responsible government, or confederation with Canada. In the first round responsible government won, but it did not receive an absolute majority, so a runoff was held the next month, which Confederation won with 52.3% of the votes cast. The option of union with the United States was kept off the ballot, and the Confederates, led by the charismatic Joey Smallwood and secretly funded by Canada, enjoyed an immense tactical advantage. 

Referendum propaganda on display in The Rooms, Newfoundland and Labrador’s Provincial Museum and Art Gallery. “Canada’s social programs” formed a great deal of the appeal of Confederation to poor Newfoundlanders, who tended to see responsible government as control of Newfoundland by a clique centered on St. John’s. 

But whatever the details, the Newfoundlanders voted for it, right? Ultimately, there’s no arguing against the results of a referendum. The really shocking claim of Malone’s book, though, is that the vote was rigged; that responsible government really won the second referendum of 1948, and that dirty tricks, of the sort allegedly played in Illinois during the presidential election of 1960, ensured a surplus of about 7000 votes in favor of the correct outcome. Thus did Canada get control of Newfoundland’s fishery, which it has mismanaged, and of the development of the iron mines of Labrador, which employ many locals but whose profits flow elsewhere. The Churchill Falls Generating Station, a joint project between Newfoundland and Quebec, ended up being a terrible deal for Newfoundland, but according to Malone Ottawa forced them to ratify the agreement for the sake of bribing Quebec not to secede. 

The Confederation Building, St. John’s, Joey Smallwood’s monument to himself. Opened in 1960, it replaced the Colonial Building as the meeting place for Newfoundland’s legislature. It also houses several governmental departments. 

It was eye-opening for me to visit a part of Canada that has such genuine and persistent grievances against the federal government. This is very seldom an issue in my home province of Ontario. And yet, if the ubiquitous appearance of the maple leaf flag indicates anything, Atlantic Canadians are not hoping to secede any time soon. 

Many Newfoundland homes feature a cross-shaped “nautical” pole from which multiple flags fly; the flags of Newfoundland and Canada are both very popular. 

* It seems to me that the word “Confederation” has survived much better than “Dominion” has in the Canadian vernacular. “Dominion” now connotes a colonial junior-partnership, and was never really translatable into French. “Confederation” suffers neither of these drawbacks, and lives on in the names of such things as the Confederation Centre, Confederation Bridge, Confederation Square, etc. In my youth there existed a supermarket chain named Dominion which has gone the way of all corporate mergers, and I believe that at one point there was person known as the Dominion Geographer in Ottawa. Otherwise, I can think of no other everyday appearances of this word. Good thing Canada is a “Confederation,” though, not a “Confederacy.”

From the Economist

Some saddening news:

The study of history is in decline in Britain

As the country navigates a historic period, it is losing its skill at interpreting the past

Whatever you think about recent events in Britain, you cannot deny that they qualify as historic. The country is trying to make a fundamental change in its relationship with the continent. The Conservative Party is in danger of splitting asunder and handing power to a far-left Labour Party. All this is taking place against the backdrop of a fracturing of the Western alliance and a resurgence of authoritarian populism.

Yet even as history’s chariot thunders at a furious pace, the study of history in British universities is in trouble. The subject used to hold a central position in national life. A scholarship to read history at one of the ancient universities was both a rite of passage for established members of the elite and a ticket into the elite for clever provincial boys, as Alan Bennett documented so touchingly in his play The History Boys. Prominent historians such as A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper were public figures who spoke to the nation about both historical and contemporary events. The Sunday Times had Trevor-Roper on retainer to write special reports on big news stories and Taylor’s televised lectures attracted millions of viewers.

I would tell you to read the whole thing, but the rest is behind a paywall.

From Mark Bauerlein

I’ve quite enjoyed the work of Mark Bauerlein of Emory University, and his March column for Minding the Campus does not disappoint:

The president of the Modern Language Association is Judith Butler, who specializes in gender theory and whose humanistic feel for language may be measured by the clotted, clunky prose she writes. Her humanitas is limited, but that’s no stumbling block. Scholars and teachers are valued more for their ability to rehearse a theoretico-political interpretation of a text (which can be just about anything) than for their erudition or connoisseurship or aesthetic discernment. It is more important for a job candidate to show she can cite Butler properly than it is for her to explain why Moby-Dick is a great book.

I hope you see the problem. The reason we have a humanities crisis in the first place is that undergraduates aren’t enrolling in humanities classes in sufficient numbers. They’re going elsewhere, to business, psychology, and STEM.

And why is that? Because students come to the humanities for inspiration. They are guys who like Hemingway and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” girls who love impressionism and Mozart and Virginia Woolf. For at least some of them, the social justice approach turns them off. They want to look at Monet’s lilies, not consider the “male gaze.” They are struck by Ivan Karamazov’s atheist crisis, not by class relations and the peasantry. The bare humanity and soaring rhetoric of Frederick Douglass hit them more than his blackness.

Current humanities professors regard those loves as mystifications, or as denials of the realities of race, sex, class, and empire. The freshmen and sophomores who enroll in their classes thus find that their inspirations are suspect and unwanted. They are told that their passions need to be politicized. The descriptions of the fields quoted above can only appear to them unappealing. Only those 19-year-olds who already share the leftist vision want to hear more of it, and they aren’t enough to keep enrollments healthy

What can the humanities professor do? Her training through graduate school has primed her to think in just these identitarian, progressive terms. It’s what got her a job and will ensure her promotions. We have a heavy indoctrination coming from above, while at the same time a steady estrangement from below, on the part of the undergraduates.

Read the whole thing.