Category Archives: Archives, History, and Historiography

Upcoming Events in NYC: The United States and The Cold War September Seminars

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[Maybe I’ll see you at John Earl Haynes‘ presentation?]

***The United States and The Cold War September Seminars***

To RSVP or to receive a copy of the paper please email, zk3@nyu.edu

Thursday, September 17, 2009*
Dana Frank, University of California, Santa Cruz
“The AFL-CIO’s Cold War in Honduras: The First Years of Intervention, 1954-59”
5:30 – 7:00pm (with reception to follow)
*
Thursday, September 25, 2009*
John Earl Haynes, Library of Congress,
“Alexander Vassiliev’s Notebooks and the Documentation of Soviet Intelligence
Activities in the United States during the Stalin Era”
Special Start Time: 5:00 – 6:300pm (with reception to follow)

*
Tamiment Library Book Talk*

To RSVP please email zk3@nyu.edu
*
Wednesday, September 23, 2009*
Nelson N. Lichtenstein, University of California, Santa Barbara
“The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business”
6:00pm- 7:30pm (with reception to follow)

Tamiment Library
70 Washington Square South , 10th Floor
(between LaGuardia and Greene Streets)

Polish Anti-Authoritaran Leszek Kolakowski Passes On

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Leszek Kolakowski

“Freedom is always vulnerable and its cause never safe”–Leszek Kolakowski

Polish anti-authoritarian historian and theorist Leszek Kolakowski has passed away on Friday, June 17, at the age of 81. Kolakowski was Senior Research Fellow Emeritus at All Souls College, Oxford. The Library of Congress awarded him the first John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Human Sciences.

If you are unfamiliar with the man, he was a supporter of Solidarity and penned the magnificent three-volume Main Currents of Marxism: Its Rise, Growth and Dissolution (1976-78), one of the best texts I have ever read on the subject. Kolakowski argued that the barbarity of Stalinism and other communist states were no aberation from Marxism but the logical conclusion of the application of Marx’s concepts. Some of his other works are The Individual and Infinity (1958), The Philosophy of Existence, the Defeat of Existence (1965), Husserl and the Search for Certitude (1975), If There is no God (1982), Metaphysical Horror (1988).

The Library of Congress website notes:

The relationships between freedom and belief, examined in many different contexts, have been lifelong themes of his scholarly work, and are displayed fully in a wide range of essays written in a non-technical language and accessible to a wide range of readers. In his, “The Death of Utopia Reconsidered” (1983), he explains his view of philosophy:

The cultural role of philosophy is not to deliver the truth but to build the spirit of truth, and this means never to let the inquisitive energy of mind go to sleep, never to stop questioning what appears to be obvious and definitive, always to defy the seemingly intact resources of common sense, always to suspect that there might be “another side” in what we take for granted, and never to allow us to forget that there are questions that lie beyond the legitimate horizon of science and are nonetheless crucially important to the survival of humanity as we know it.

What Kolakowski exemplifies and defends is the treatment of every individual as a rational and freely acting subject, aware that there is a spiritual side of life, able to have faith, yet eschewing absolute certainty of either an empirical or transcendental sort. It is the essence of a vibrant human culture to honor the universality of human rights while welcoming conflict of values, and repeated self- questioning, with what he calls “an inconsistent scepticism:”

I do not believe that human culture can ever reach a perfect synthesis of its diversified and incompatible components. Its very richness is supported by this very incompatibility of its ingredients. And it is the conflict of values, rather than their harmony, that keeps our culture alive.

Check out this conversation between Kolakowski and Danny Postel from Daedlus (excerpt):

dp: Your less than euphoric feelings about the Western Left were strongly colored by your year in Berkeley in 1969–1970. Tzvetan Todorov describes a similar experience, of fleeing a Communist country–in his case, Bulgaria–only to find himself in a heavily Communist intellectual milieu in Paris. What was Berkeley like for you?

lk: I found the so-called student movement simply barbaric. There are of
course ignorant young people at all times and in all places. But in Berkeley their ignorance was elevated to the level of the highest wisdom. They wanted to ‘revolutionize’ the university in such a way that they wouldn’t have to learn anything. They had all sorts of silly proposals. For instance, they wanted professors to be appointed by students, and students to be examined by other students. I remember one leaflet issued by the black student movement asserting that the libraries contained nothing but “irrelevant
white knowledge.”

[read it all here]

Read more:

The Death of Utopia Reconsidered” (Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Australian National University, June 22, 1982)

How to be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist

Roger Kimball’s obit at Pajamas Media

Another obit at Inside Higher Ed

And one more from Democracy Digest

More added via Martin in the Margins and Poumista:

Andrew Murphy at Harry’s Place

Hitchens

Michael Weiss (Snarksmith)

Nick Cohen at Standpoint

Yom Ha’atzmaut: Israel’s Founding Revisited

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Happy Independence Day to all my Israeli friends and readers and anyone else celebrating. In remembrance of the struggle for Israel’s independence, here is an excerpt of an interview with Zev Golan in The Jewish Press. Mr. Golan recently translated Lehi activist Israel Eldad‘s The First Tithe from Hebrew into English:

People…often credit the UN vote of November 29, 1947 as instrumental in creating Israel. However, while many Jews in Palestine danced in the streets the night of November 29, Eldad walked around depressed. Why?

Eldad compares that night to the time when Israel danced around the Golden Calf and said, “This is the god who took you out of Egypt.” Here they were looking to the United Nations and saying, “This is the god who has given us the state,” and it wasn’t.

The people who created Israel were the people who sat in prison and the people who were shot or hanged by the British. The facts on the ground are that the British would have left even if the United Nations had not voted for a Jewish state.

Eldad also felt depressed that night because they were not celebrating the Jewish state that had been dreamt of for thousands of years and that he and others had been fighting for, but rather a truncated, shrunken Jewish state that would not have survived were it not for a miraculous war that followed.

[read the entire interview here]

You can read more of Golan’s translations of Eldad’s writings here.

Samuel Kassow: Who Will Write Our History?

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Trinity College History Professor Samuel Kassow discusses his recent work, Who Will Write Our History?: Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto on C-SPAN 2’s “Book TV” program.

Click here to watch the video.

From the Book TV website:

Samuel Kassow recounts the efforts by Polish historian Emanuel Ringelblum and a group of amateur and professional historians, the Oyneg Shabes, who worked secretly from 1940 to 1943 to record Jewish suffering and subsequently hid thousands of records prior to the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. This event was hosted by the Tenement Museum in New York City.

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Rachel Shabi and “Israel’s humiliating discrimination against Arab Jews”

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[H/t to Point of No ReturnZWord and TNR]

This is a guest post by Point of No Return at ZWord:

The Daily Telegraph, Britain’s centre-right mass-circulation newspaper, today carries a review of Rachel Shabi’s new book – unpromisingly titled ‘Israel’s humiliating discrimination against Arab Jews’ – about the discrimination faced in Israel by Jews from Arab countries, Not the Enemy.

The reviewer calls the book ‘eye-opening’, ’sobering’ and ‘disturbing and important’. He seems to nod in horrified agreement at Shabi’s catalogue of humilations inflicted on Mizrahi Jews by Ashkenazim (European) Jews. They were made to feel ‘excluded’ and ‘inferior.’

What’s more, Ms Shabi must know what she is writing about: she is after all the descendant of Iraqi Jews herself.

But this is no ordinary reviewer. This is Gerald Jacobs, literary editor of the Jewish Chronicle.

He hardly attempts to challenge Shabi’s narrative that the Mizrahi migration to Israel was ‘imposed by Zionist pressure and even acts of sabotage’ (Ah yes, those Zionist bombs).

One would have expected of a man in Jacobs’ shoes to know that, as I have already pointed out, Israeli popular culture is today dominated by Mizrahi influences. The stories of discrimination belong in the 1950s. Intermarriage is rife, and Mizrahim have reached the highest echelons of power. Jacobs does not even sniff a whiff of tendentiousness in Shabi’s anti-Zionism and her downplaying of Arab antisemitism – curiously it largely seems to begin in 1948 – nor does he question her spurious assumption that Jews from the Middle East are really Arabs.

If this is what we can expect from an editor of the leading organ of British Jewry, Lord help us.

Shabi is part of small group of post-Zionist Mizrahi intellectuals who want to reclaim the non-European aspect their identity. I think this is a positive thing. But some of these post-Zionists have a tendency to borrow analytical frameworks from Marxists and others who view Ashkenazim and Zionists in general as imperialists and colonialists. In this narrative, the Mizrahim are indigenous people who have been victimized by Zionism, just like the Palestinians. In other words, Mizrahi Jews and Palestinians are people of color and Ashkenazis are whitey. Shabi and her political allies, in turn, are part pf the global resistance against the forces of global empire. It is a very tired and played out perspective which is why I won’t be spending time reading the book.

However, to claim there is no discrimination against Mizrahim in Israel is not accurate. Most of my Israeli friends are Mizrahi and they see elite positions in universities, the armed forces and politics continue to be dominated by Ashkenazim and that Mizrahi families are generally less well off than Ashkenazi families. They see institutional inequality in Israel that is not as pronounced as that experienced by African Americans in the United States but still similar. Yes, they see their faces reflected in popular culture and entertainment but to a much lesser extent in the sciences, engineering, law, medicine, finance and politics.

Take a look at the Katamonim neighborhood in Jerusalem or Yeroham and other development towns in the Negev. What is the ratio of Jews from Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Ethiopia, etc. compared to those from Europe? From my experience (I realize this is totally anecdotal) most Ashkenazim avoid those places.

This is not meant to diss Ashkenazi Jews–I love my peeps–but one of the perennial downfalls of the Jewish people is our lack of unity. Acknowledging that these tensions exist is only the first step. The next step is addressing the inequality, perhaps above all in education. To provide one example, the Kedma School is doing some great work to assist Mizrahi students in achieving their bagrut:

Before Kedma was founded, only 10% of high school-age children from the Katamonim area completed high school with a bagrut certificate, and many students dropped out of school altogether. Ten years later, in 2003-2004, the percent of 12th-grade Kedma students who completed a full bagrut certificate was higher than the national average: 57% finished with a full bagrut certificate, and 30% were missing only one or two exams to complete the bagrut (click here to view a comparative chart). The first senior class graduated in 2000, and today there are 150 students in grades 7 through 12 who study at Kedma.

I agree with Noga (The Contentious Centrist) when she writes:

Imagine, that Jews can actually be like any other people, have their prejudices and cultural biases and seek to feel that they are better than their neigbours! Wow!

Yet when I look at what is going down in the world today I see a real need for Jewish unity. Not only between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi but between secular and religious and across all the other boundaries that keep the Jewish people divided.

OK, rant over.

C-SPAN Presidential Survey

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C-SPAN has released the results of their Second Survey of Presidential Leadership. From the Survey website:

Fifty-eight historians from across the political spectrum who contributed to C-SPAN’s year long series, American Presidents: Life Portraits participated in C-SPAN’s survey. They rated the 41 men who have served in the White House on ten different qualities of presidential leadership. Results of this survey, overall rankings and each president’s scores in individual categories, are being released by C-SPAN to coincide with the February 21 observance of President’s Day…

The cable public affairs network was guided in the survey effort by a team of four historians and academics: Dr. Douglas Brinkley, Director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans; Dr. Edna Greene Medford, Associate Professor of History, Howard University; Richard Norton Smith, Director of the Gerald R. Ford Museum and Library; and Dr. John Splaine, Education professor, University of Maryland.

The four survey advisors devised a survey which asked participants to use a one (“not effective”) to ten (“very effective”) scale to rate each president on ten qualities of presidential leadership: “Public Persuasion,” “Crisis Leadership,” “Economic Management,” “Moral Authority,” “International Relations,” “Administrative Skills,” “Relations with Congress,” “Vision/Agenda Setting,” and “Pursuit of Equal Justice for All”. And, to reflect the changing role of the presidency over the course of US history, the advisory team chose as the tenth category, “Performance Within the Context of His Times.”

The survey was sent by mail in December to 87 historians and other professional observers of the presidency whose work contributed to C-SPAN’s 41 week biography series, American Presidents. Fifty-eight agreed to participate. Survey responses were tabulated by averaging all the responses in any given category for each president. Each of the ten categories were given equal weighting in the total scores. Overseeing the tabulation were Robert Kennedy, C-SPAN CFO and Dr. Robert Browning, a political scientist who serves as director of the C-SPAN archives.

The surveys provide an interesting snapshot of how a particular president is viewed at a particular time. For example, President George W. Bush is number 36 on the list. Will his position rise over time or decline? Back when the first poll was taken in 2000, President Clinton was ranked 21st. Today he has risen to 15th, placing him ahead of John Adams, James Madison, and John Quincy Adams. Time will tell with Bush as well.

Survey results here. Comparison between 2000 and 2009 is here. A list of historians who participated in the survey is here.

Lincoln and Darwin: Happy 200th!

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[Image swiped from Clashing Culture]

Malcolm Jones (Newsweek):

How’s this for a coincidence? Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born in the same year, on the same day: Feb. 12, 1809. As historical facts go, it amounts to little more than a footnote. Still, while it’s just a coincidence, it’s a coincidence that’s guaranteed to make you do a double take the first time you run across it. Everybody knows Darwin and Lincoln were near-mythic figures in the 19th century. But who ever thinks of them in tandem? Who puts the theory of evolution and the Civil War in the same sentence? Why would you, unless you’re writing your dissertation on epochal events in the 19th century? But instinctively, we want to say that they belong together. It’s not just because they were both great men, and not because they happen to be exact coevals. Rather, it’s because the scientist and the politician each touched off a revolution that changed the world.

Simon Jenkins (The Age):

CHARLES Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the same day two centuries ago, thanks be to the false god of coincidence. But which, you cry, was the greater? Was it the man who transformed our understanding of the human race, or the man who made the mightiest nation on earth also the custodian of liberty and democracy? Was it the scientist or the statesman?

Darwin claims the crown for the scale of his intellectual revolution, but was he no more than an observer, a describer, a cataloguer? Did he not fail Marx’s test, that any philosopher can interpret the world while “the point is to change it”? Lincoln may have ensured that America became a force for world freedom, but was he not just a lucky war leader, and of a cause whose time had anyway come?

The comparison is silly, but not the question. We can leave the two men as giants but we can set the pursuit of science against politics and ask which deserves the greater respect.