Saturday, January 29, 2011

In the midst of such pessimism about government debt . . .

. . . this fun cartogram brightened my day.

After all, I saw it moments after reading the sobering breakdown in this week's issue of The Economist. Pretty witty cover though.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Historical Fiction

Though I still enjoyed seeing it, I've recently come across a pair of columns offering some criticism of The King's Speech. The more meaningful of these critiques came a couple of issues ago in The Economist. A more scathing one appeared this morning in The Inquirer. The former is an interesting commentary on how the film's story touches on some quirks of English collective memory.

The latter is more of a knock on the film's historical accuracy, making the point that it overshadows some ugly details from the time period. My response: no kidding.

Further, I'm glad the film did what it did.

In my experience, the best historical films often squeeze and manipulate details from the past. If films don't, one ends up with bad films. If I'm paying to go to the theater, I'm conceding some bad history for good storytelling.

The best historical film I know of is Glory. The broad outline of that story is accurate, as was the case with The King's Speech. But the details of the story, namely the preposterous coincidence of the four main black characters (Trip, Jupiter, Rawlins, and Thomas) joining the same unit, are pretty off the mark. But I often try to teach my students how the film is deliberately trying to pull together the four dominant stereotypes of the black man in the Civil War era to teach us something. It's a contrivance attempting to turn stereotypes on their heads. And, in my opinion, it's a brilliant teaching device. Glory is more a tale of the saga of race in war than it is a biopic of the 54th Massachusetts. It is for those reasons that The King's Speech resonates with me: it's more about overcoming awesome obstacles in times of crisis than it is a good biopic.

To a certain extent, we must concede that film has powerful limits in telling historical tales. I walked away from The King's Speech mulling over my favorite speeches made by Prime Minister Churchill in the war. To me, those speeches are far more meaningful. But film probably couldn't convey the awesome power of those speeches in the way grainy recordings can, or even just the words on the page. I can't help but think of Gettysburg's finale: the portrayal of Pickett's Charge. The film tried its best to make that the awesome and awful (for some) moment that it was but it simply fell short. Even with digital technologies now available, I don't think one can capture the full weight of tens of thousands marching across fields into cannon and rifle fire. Ironically, the film's depiction of the smaller action on day 2 at Little Round Top is more compelling. If one reads The Killer Angels, the gravity of those two scenes are reversed.

By the way, note the contrivance in the film and the novel that Chamberlain's regiment just happens to be at the center of the Union line on the third day.

I'm going on a bit too long, now aren't I.

Capturing an event accurately isn't the job of film. That's the domain of authors trained in the arts of history and journalism. That's the job of documentaries. Filmmakers have the crucial task of making a story come alive that will let an era resonate with us for days after leaving the film we were fortunate enough to see. It is on that matter that The King's Speech fares so well.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Janaury 24, 1865

Though buried deep on today's This Day in History Page the event that took place 146 years ago today in the Civil War is quite telling. Apparently the Confederate government reauthorized the exchange of prisoners on this day in that year. I never knew that they resumed the exchange. As the site acknowledges, however, this decision so late in the war was rather useless (and probably driven mostly by the swelling numbers of Federal prisoners the Confederacy could not accommodate).

I don't know how widely known is the story black troops played in the Civil War. Black men in uniform made up 10% of the Union Army, which might not sound significant, but was. In a war of attrition where numbers mattered black men provided an extra 200,000 troops to the Union forces, hastening the demise of Confederate forces. Further, those 200,000 served at a rate far greater, proportionally speaking, than the percentage of blacks living in the Union would suggest. Many of these men were, in fact, runaway slaves, contraband.

Let me get to the point.

Opposition to slavery in the Civil War was not necessarily a moral viewpoint. Those who opposed it often did so on economic, social, or pragmatic grounds. Many of those who opposed slavery held viewpoints that today we consider quite racist. Even the Great Emancipator himself is on the record saying some deplorable things about black Americans.

But the whole prisoner exchange issue ironically shows a humanity toward blacks from the Federal government and military establishment that, in my opinion, was ahead of its time. Upon the Union's announcement allowing black men to enlist in their ranks, the Confederate Congress announced that it would not exchange black men captured in combat. Instead, blacks found in the employ of Federal troops would be returned to slavery; those captured and found in uniform would be summarily executed. In response, the Federal government declared that it would suspend the system of exchanging prisoners that the two sides to that point had carried out. Certainly there was a pragmatic consideration here: Confederate resources were thinner than were Federal, so the greater hardship would be for them to care for the prisoners they took. Yet, still, the Union's suspension of the prisoner exchange was a tremendous statement of equality: If you don't treat all our soldiers as soldiers, we'll discontinue this courtesy based on equality of soldiers.

Sometimes history turns on acts that seem innocuous or marginal at the time they took place. To me, the story of how race complicated prisoner exchanges in the Civil War demonstrates a foreshadowing of a day when our country would better understand the principle that all men are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

January 23

I haven't checked out This Day in History in a while. The most significant dates on there for today don't do much for me . . . but tucked way down on the list is that today is the anniversary of the truce that ended America's military involvement in Vietnam. I wonder to what extent the folks who lived through thought of that announcement as the end of a "National Nightmare" or whether many knew that the next "National Nightmare" (Watergate) was on the horizon.

Incidentally, there was a really neat commentary in today's Washington Post by Ted Koppel touching on the Iran Hostage Crisis.

We seem to be living through pessimistic times right now, but one can't help but wonder of the mood of the country in the decade surrounding when I was born. Watergate and Vietnam preceded me. The Hostage Crisis is something I simply was too young to remember, as I am too young to remember the hyperinflation and "malaise" of the late 1970s. Though crises such as the Great Depression, the early years of World War II (my dad often insists that there was great apprehension and mystery there in early 1942), and the Civil War were more traumatic. But the long 1970s strikes me as a particularly grueling time.

By contrast, my generation came to understand events at the time of the Berlin Wall's fall and the Persian Gulf War, about as neat and efficient of a war as has been fought by our nation. We grew up with the positive images of the optimistic Reagan as president, campy images of the A-Team and wholesome images of the Keatons and Huxtables on TV. We were surrounded by all the signs of growing wealth and prosperity.

In the next decade or so, our nation will be sorting out a host of interconnected messes regarding the economy, finance, and global relations. Our parents' experiences and our experiences contrast with one another. Frankly, they've had more experience with stormy waters than have we. I'm glad I had the chance to come of age in a time of fascinating triumphs, but I'm more glad Mom and Dad brought me into the world despite the stormy currents of the mid 1970s.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Last night I received a wonderful gift: the book accompanying Ken Burns' miniseries The Civil War autographed by Burns himself! How appropriate, in this 150th anniversary year to receive that. Hard to believe his miniseries is now more than 20 years old. It got me to thinking about the best documentaries I've ever been able to watch, many of them ones that I use in my class.

Actually, documentaries are something I'm pretty snobbish about, probably because of the impression Burns' series left on me. His was one of the first documentaries I really remember ingesting (I think I watched it in the early 1990s while still in high school). But when one is first exposed to that as a way of telling history, it's hard to accept a lot of what one now sees as documentaries.

Anyway, here are the best documentaries I've had the chance to see.

Ken Burns' The Civil War: This might be indispensable watching for the American. First of all, it is a very neat narrative of the conflict that happened so long ago and which, in my opinion, fairly redefined the political culture of the nation. Moreover, it's told so darn well. He blended common voices and perspectives of the DWEMs seamlessly. And it is amazing how he can hold our attention for nearly ten hours of programming without any meaningful live action. It's all stills, except for live-action shots of battlefield scenes as they are today or live-action of historians musing on events. Some of the best sequences included "The Meteor" about John Brown's raid, "Shiloh" about the first horrific battle of the war (in 1862), and the documentary's treatment of Appomattox Courthouse. Those latter two segments drove me to visit those sites. Getting David McCullough to provide the narration was a stroke of genius, and the cast of stars who narrate historical figures (i.e. Morgan Freeman for Frederick Douglass) only lend weight to the production.

The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306 is required viewing if one wants to visit the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. I can't remember a more moving introduction ever to a museum experience. It begins as history, ends as a religious experience. Seriously. Most of the audience in that little theater shouted "Amen" at the end of it. The documentary explains what brought Dr. King to Memphis in 1968 and primarily relies on the perspective of a Memphis pastor who spent the last hour of King's life with King and Ralph Abernathy that fateful evening. There's humor, there's a powerful Christian message, there's powerful foreshadowing of the tragedy. Watching it even at home is a powerful experience.

Another wonderful museum documentary is the one made in 1989 for the Johnstown Flood Museum. In some ways it's the antonym for Burns' style; after a Burns'-like profile of what Johnstown looked like before the flood, the film re-tells the story of the flood. It does so with amazing tact and deftness. Actors play out soundless scenes of the impending tragedy against lyric narration. The opening line of the flood story attributes the flood's genesis to a storm somewhere over Kansas. This film both powerfully tells the story of the flood itself and the social dimensions implicit in the flood. Brilliant.

Shoah is a documentary I have only seen parts of, but the parts of it I've seen have really made it impossible for me to watch much of anything else regarding the Holocaust. This is solemnly powerful in a way I don't think anything else can replicate. This was a groundbreaking documentary that retells the horrors of the Holocaust without using historical footage. The long documentary is held together by filmed interviews with survivors and perpetrators. Occasionally there will be narration of primary documents from the Holocaust. Dr. Birkner in my methods class showed us three scenes from it to demonstrate how history can be creatively and powerfully told. I'll probably never shake the paradoxically dry but powerful recollections in the three scenes I watched, in particular the interview with the barber survivor. Unfortunately this is a nearly impossible video to obtain in the U.S.

Dear America is a 90-minute documentary of the Vietnam War that might become required watching for the American citizen. This HBO-produced documentary relies entirely on archival and news footage from America's longest war. There is no narration really. What you hear against the music are actors reading letters sent from Vietnam or from loved ones to their soldiers and sailors. Usually the viewer sees news clips (with their original audio) interspersed with narration from letters set against music and archival music. The pacing is just right. But the most brilliant moment in the film comes about halfway through when the film takes the viewer on a journey through a helicopter raid. Set against the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" we see footage shot from helicopters and journalists accompanying soldiers and graphics walk us through a soldier's glossary, defining terms such as "LZ," "VC," and "Search and Destroy." I find it meaningful. The students are engrossed. I can't imagine the power for those who lived through the Vietnam War Era.

There are other worthy documentaries, often on topics more economic and political than what you see here. I could nominate Inside North Korea as another historical film, but it seems more political. These are the five most moving depictions of history I've seen in the documentary format.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

This weeks' alarm in the middle of the night

So, at lunch Tuesday a conversation emerged about pensions and retirement. Many in my department are concerned about the prospects of our pension disappearing with the election of a fairly conservative Tom Corbett. Despite his bombast, I'm not that worried to greatly. I don't see any political force powerful enough to rob employees of what has already been put in. As for a gradual phase out of our future pension, well, I saw the writing on the wall for that half a decade ago.

Oh, back to my story. One of my colleagues, after lunch broke, simply asked me "What's the motivation to teach?"

She was posing it more as a philosophical point, echoing a question one of her graduate school professors had posed. She clarified to me that she wasn't necessarily saying it for herself, but that it's something one had to ponder if teaching in a less fortunate environment than ours.

The woman who brought this up is one of the most capable and talented teachers I've known. She has the intelligence, charisma, and set of skills to reach any group of kids: she's that good. In fact, she would thrive in any career she chose.

Thankfully she chose teaching.

Okay, here's the point. American society is right now in a grueling conversation about costs of public services and government, and for good reason. Teachers, along with many other public employees, are the focus of many individuals' ideas of where to cut. Again, there's some good reason for this. The words of a public educators' advocate from last spring echo in my head: "Realize that for many a 10% cut in teachers' pay is a good place to start."

If a young, intelligent, talented colleague like mine would question the incentive to teach, I have cause for alarm. Are teachers to be humble public servants or highly compensated professional? The answer is somewhere in between. But I do worry about the long-term impact of driving the best and the brightest in our profession from the classroom, which we might end up doing in the long run. Pensions and benefits are costly perks that level out the somewhat diminished pay of public education. Now that might be an arrogant thing to assert in an economy as dull as ours right now: but stack the pay of educators against private-sector professionals with commensurate education and the teachers' pay will likely be less.

Yet, perhaps here in 2011 we are finally as a society sizing up benefits like health coverage and pensions for what they are: hidden costs that for decades were obscured. Health coverage became a private-sector employee responsibility in the 1950s as a way for businesses to avoid wage-price spiral-inducing inflation (or so President Eisenhower thought). Pensions were a way to assure employees of stability after their working years were done, and to lure retirees from the workforce a bit earlier than they otherwise would for younger workers to start their earning years. Logical solutions to tough potential problems. But costly. And as the true cost of everything (from dealer invoices on cars to plane tickets) becomes more transparent, we finally are confronted with the costs that were always there.

It would be wonderful if we lived in a truly altruistic world where matters of pay and working conditions were trumped by the intrinsic joys of teaching. But we don't. And we won't. And I hope my profession is as appealing to my children's generation as it was to mine.