History Through Pop: Barenaked Ladies’ “Celebrity”

The Barenaked Ladies crafted yet another great album in their 2003 release Everything to Everyone. The singles selection (“Another Postcard” and “Testing 1,2,3”) wasn’t the best; “Unfinished” and “War on Drugs” are my favorite tracks. And then there’s the opening track, “Celebrity,” which starts with this little gem of a lyric:

Don’t call me a zero
I’m gonna be a hero
Like Phil Esposito or the Kennedys

Phil EspositoLike so many of their tunes, BNL packs a lot into these few lines. Phil Esposito–of course–is Philip Anthony Esposito, the celebrated center for the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins, and New York Rangers. “Espo” began his pro career in 1964, and during his 18 years in the NHL, racked up 6 Art Ross trophies (league leading scorer), 2 Hart Memorial Trophies (most valuable player), and 2 Stanley Cub championships. According to the disembodied, dispassionate, passive-voice wisdom of Wikipedia, Esposito “is considered to be one of the best [hockey players? centers? Canadians?] to have ever played in the National Hockey League.” BAM! Hockey history in your face!

KennedysThe Kennedys can claim no such hockey greatness, but they nevertheless deserve our attention for the influence they have exercised on American politics and culture. The Kennedys made their first appearance in American history in the form of businessman/politician Patrick Joseph Kennedy and his son, businessman/politician Joseph Patrick Kennedy (and no, I’m not just mixing up the first and middle names), who married Rose Fitzpatrick, daughter of Democratic party boss and Boston mayor John F. Fitzgerald. Put these power genes together and you get the Kennedy boys: John, Bobby, and Ted.

John F. Kennedy: WWII torpedo boat captain and 35th president, gunned down three years into his term. Generally regarded as the US’s most handsome president, although Andrew Jackson must surely run a close second. Gets credit for the Peace Corps, Project Apollo, and proposing what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But he’s also accountable for some less savory moments in presidential history: lying about the deal he struck with Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, thus putting his successor, LBJ, in the unfortunate position of having to show his own toughness against the Communists in Vietnam (as Eric Alterman argues). Robert Dean contends that Kennedy contributed to a cult of masculinity–an “imperial brotherhood”–that adopted the always popular dick-swinging school of foreign policy.

Robert F. Kennedy: His older brother’s attorney general, US Senator from New York, and Democratic presidential candidate in 1968, when he was assassinated. As attorney general, he went after the Teamsters; running for president in 1968, he spoke a psuedo-populist message, touring Appalachia and focusing on urban poverty. Like his brother, he left a long and sometimes depressing series of “what if?” questions for historians and Democrats–perhaps the last chance for unity and broad electoral success the Democratic party had for the rest of the 20th century.

Edward Kennedy: Best known as the senior senator from Massachusetts (serving in that capacity since 1962), Ted also made a run for the presidency in 1980, losing the nomination to Jimmy Carter, who then got mowed down by Reagan in the general election. Nevertheless, he has remained an active and effective senator, putting his mark on all manner of legislation, from immigration (in 1965 and 2007) to a bill honoring Johnny Carson.

There are other Kennedys, too: JFK’s son (JFK Jr., who died in a plane crash in 1999) and daughter (Caroline, who recently published a book on Christmas traditions); Ted’s son Patrick J. Kennedy (US congressman); Bobby’s son Robert Jr. (environmentalist, author, and falconer); and on and on and on.

It’s an amazing web of fame and power, and one wonders to what degree it is deserved. BNL suggest that celebrity is in large part facade for nothingness:

“I’ll be imitated
And overrated, but that doesn’t bother me”


“All that you will see is a celebrity
All that’s left of me is my celebrity”

Whether JFK, RFK, and the rest of the clan are overrated is a question I’m not equipped to answer (I’ve been working on this post for a few days, and I’m frankly sick of it). But the importance of celebrity in American history is unquestionable, and the Kennedys are an excellent example.

Learning to Teach Race

The birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gives me the occasion to reflect on my own education in the importance of race in American history. A few years back, I had the opportunity to teach a class on US history since the end of the Civil War. I designed the course to follow the narrative of the Republican Party, from the party of Lincoln to the party of the New Right. I intended to focus on issues of class; I was particularly interested in talking about the Democrats losing workers and middle-class folks. That was the idea, anyway. But the course quickly shifted focus to race, no matter how hard I (and a few of my students) tried to bring it back to class. There were the usual suspects, of course: Reconstruction, the Civil Rights movement, etc. But there were unexpected moments when race came to the center: how race shaped the Populist and Progressive movements; how the New Deal simultaneously ignored, challenged, and supported existing racial dynamics; how race and racism helped end the New Deal coalition and Democratic rule; etc..

I’m not all that naive; I had “known” for a long time that race was and is important to understanding US history. But it wasn’t until that course that I understood it in a much deeper way. The evolution of the course forced an intellectual reconsideration: my simplistic Marxism was challenged; I could no longer simply dismiss race and racism as direct manifestations of the class struggle–a misleadingly easy narrative. It was personal and emotional, too, for if I could have gone so long basically ignoring race, what did that say about me? Finally, the course had pedagogical implications; I knew then how irresponsible it would be to teach a course without recognizing race as the core issue in American history.

All of this is nothing, of course, compared to what Dr. King went through and accomplished. But the least I can do is recognize how his life’s work is absolutely fundamental to the work of the American historian, particularly when we teach.

Finding Time

My partner and I just spent four hours–four hours–cleaning house. It looks great; more importantly, when the place is a mess, I can’t think straight. As near as I can tell, that whole “mess=genius” equation must be true, because how else could you keep track of things in disorder if you weren’t brilliant? Anyway, while I’m glad–embarrassingly happy, actually–that the house is clean, I’m now wondering how I’m supposed to write summaries of this, this, this, and this, and when I’m going to find time to grade the forty papers on my desk, and when, exactly, the time will come to read this and this. All of this, of course, I’ve promised myself to finish this weekend. Good luck with that.

And that’s just the stuff that’s in the right-in-front-of-my-face file. There’s also the article I’m supposed to be working on, the book review that’s due in about a month (on a subject that I’m not nearly the expert I claim to be), and a half-dozen other projects that would add a bit of much-needed weight to my CV. The (albeit weakly developed) point: there is a serious disconnect between what departments say you should do–get something published, review a book or two, etc.–and the stuff they make you do–read books you don’t really need to (although perhaps want to), grade, and all of that.

And then there’s the dirty laundry!

Shut Your Pie Hole

“Would you please shut up? Shut up. Just shut the fuck up. I hate you.”

Such were my thoughts a couple weeks ago when I attended a “roundtable” in which the initial speakers* went on for twenty minutes each…despite having been told explicitly to take only four-to-five minutes each. But too many academics seem to lack the shut-up switch, preferring instead to go on and on and on and on, even when they, the audience, the chair, and everyone else knows they have gone on too long. And we all know not just because we (a) have watches, (b) are smart enough to keep track of time, and (c) can’t wait for the boring-ass talk to finish, but also because the speaker interjects, “I know I’m almost out of time, but I just want to say…” No, you are not almost out of time, you are officially out of time, and I don’t give a flying fuck* what else you have to say. And if I do, I’ll ask you about it during the discussion, which is why I came to this damn thing in the first place: to have a discussion. So just shut up for a while.

I’m inclined to believe that this is usually a function of innocent mistakes–not keeping track of time, getting carried away with your work, poor instructions, or at worst, lack of preparation. Still: get your shit together, practice your talk, take a watch with you, etc. And for those of you who think you are important or interesting enough to go way over your alloted time: you’re not. What you are is lucky: that the rest of us are too polite to get up and walk out. Because we’re all thinking about it.

Oh, shucks, I think I’ve gone beyond my allotted time. Anyone still here?

* Remember: roundtables imply general participation, not just presentation. The speakers are supposed to get things started for an open discussion, rather than simply presenting conclusions. At least that’s how I think of roundtables. Otherwise, what’s the difference from a standard panel?

** Perhaps one of my favorite expletives. Too bad it’s so nasty.

Words I hope never to use: Epistemology

epistemology: the theory of knowledge, esp. with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.

As with all of the words that end up in this blog category, “epistemology” is a perfectly appropriate word to use…in extremely rare situations. And one of those situations is not when trying to prove to readers that you are hip to the postmodernist jive-talk just like they are, so, hey, will you cool kids let me hang out with you? Puhleeze? I promise I can be aloof, obtuse, and irrelevant!

Seriously. If you’re talking about someone’s view of the world, just use “world view.” It gets to the point and doesn’t have any of the I’m-smarter-than-you-and-I-don’t-think-truth-exists connotations that come along with “epistemology.”

Blowing Your Mind With Blogs

I’m a few days late coming to it, but this posting over at The Edge of the American West is most excellent. My favorite bit:

The Postrelian idea that we can choose between small gummint and big gummint is fanciful. That train has sailed. If you want to blame someone for having “extinguished classical liberalism as the general philosophy of American government” you should blame the Republican Party of the Civil War era. Or maybe Thomas Jefferson. Or maybe you should acknowledge that if you think classical liberalism was ever alight as the general philosophy of the American government, you’re a bit of a fantasist. You probably also think the free market owes you a pony.

Simultaneously insightful, historically-minded, and hilarious (I want my pony, dammit!). And the comments give me hope that intelligent and historically-informed discussion is not actually dead, but is relevant even now (dig how BitchPhd brings Elizabeth Edwards in). If only we weren’t all so busy blogging…

You know you’re a graduate student when…

You know you’re a graduate student when* your first reaction to the cancellation of a three-hour engagement (say, a grad seminar) is “YES! AWESOME! Now I can get to Timothy Mitchell’s book on techno politics and modernity in Egypt that I’ve been wanting to read!”

* With NO apologies to Jeff Foxworthy. Shame on him: rubbing people’s faces in their own stupidity. That’s what graduate seminars are for.

Words I hope never to use: Ontology/Ontological

A new feature on the blog: words that are usually unnecessarily thrown about in the historical profession, and that I hope never to use. Today’s hope-I-never-use-it word: ontological. This is apparently to do with the “nature of being,” but I have yet to see it used in such a way as to make sense. The example in question is from a 1998 article in History and Theory by A.D. Moses about Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: “By investing anti-Semitism with ontological status–eliminationist anti-Semitism as prime mover–Goldhagen undermines the agency and responsibility of his individual agent, which he elsewhere takes pains to establish” (pg. 217). I get the point–anti-Semitism was what defined the Germans–but is it really necessary to throw “ontology” out there? Why not just say “By making anti-Semitism the essence of being a German, Goldhagen undermines…”?

Insecurities: Grad Student and Otherwise

Insecurity, I have learned over the past few years, is part of graduate student life. No matter how hard we resist, we can’t help but measure ourselves up against one another: have I read enough as her, does he have a more interesting project than me, etc. For instance, I learned the other day that a dear friend of mine recently got done with her minor field, and while my mouth said, “That’s great!” my mind was saying “Bitch. We should kick her in the shins. C’mon, legs, do it!” Fortunately, my legs didn’t get the message and my friend’s shins went unharmed. My ego, however, was not so lucky, and I once again felt inadequate to the task of graduate studies.

But over the winter break, I developed another, broader, and more terrifying insecurity: that I’m not just a sub-par graduate student–I’m also not a smart enough person. Reading about some of the great minds of the past 20, 30, 40 years, from Foucault to Eric Alterman (oh, I’m sure he’d love that comparison), I can’t help but think that I am not now nor could ever be–and that’s the killer–all that intelligent. By “intelligent” I mean creative, a wide breadth and depth of knowledge, a quick wit, etc.. Original. I’m pretty sure I don’t have that going for me.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been struck by my own limitations. It’s somewhat like the moment I had watching the NCAA men’s basketball playoffs when I was a senior in college: it occurred to me that I could never, ever be as good at basketball as those guys. As a kid, I could watch sports and think, “If I just worked hard enough at it, I could be as good as that guy,” “that guy” being Michael Jordon, Joe Montana, or Will Clark. But when you realize that the athletes you are watching are younger than you are, that hope sort of slips away. A few years later, I realized that becoming a rock star was also no longer in the cards; Noel Gallagher had already written Definitely Maybe and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, toured the world, and had dozens of classic rock star moments by the time he was 28, whilst I only had two coffee shop performances and a hack-job of a self-produced CD, and no rock star moments. So, no superstar athlete and no rock star. But that was okay. I hadn’t really worked all that hard on those things, I told myself; if I had, things might have been different.

But I had worked damned hard on my brain. And yet intellectual superstardom, or even the sort of intelligence that friends remark on and strangers notice, doesn’t seem to be in my future. I am, in a word, mediocre, and I’m not sure that any amount of work and effort–the only things I think I do reasonably well–will change that.


History Through Pop: Elbow’s “Leaders of the Free World”

This post (first post of the new year–a happy one to you all) inaugurates a new feature on this blog: History through Pop. Music, that is. In my collection of tunes, I’ve noticed a few songs that nod at, refer to, or expound on historical events, and this feature will examine those songs. Today’s tune: “Leaders of the Free World” from Elbow‘s 2005 record of the same name.

At one level, this song is a not-so-thinly veiled (and well-deserved) attack on Bush (“FECKLESS son,” as the lyrics go); a great performance at Seattle’s KEXP a few years ago makes that much clear. But there’s also a wonderful recognition of the importance of appreciating and understanding the past, particularly one line of the second verse:

“But I think we dropped the baton like the 60’s didn’t happen. Oh no.”

Guy Garvey (lyricist for Elbow) here seems to lament the failure–our failure–to realize the promises and potential of the 1960s, particularly the hope for peace. That failure, Garvey seems to be saying, is due to historical forgetfulness: “like the 60’s didn’t happen.” We have forgotten what people accomplished during the 1960s, such as forcing an end to the Vietnam War and bringing civil and voting rights to the south and beyond. Unfortunately, the only lessons that seem to have stuck are bad ones, such as how to appeal to racists without looking like a racist yourself (a mostly Republican strategy; see Nixon and Reagan; ), and how to diffuse the energy of mass protests by circumscribing those protests (where they can be held, for instance) while simultaneously appearing to embrace the exercise of “free speech,” gutted of content.

There’s another lesson from the 1960s, too, that I hope we are beginning to realize: the folly of carrying too far the concept of “the personal is political.” This became the refrain of feminists during the 1970s, and for good reason; gender relations, even/especially at the personal level of the home, shape power relations. But it went too far, and people gave up on changing society in favor of “revolutionizing” themselves, from running off to communes to embracing individual spirituality. People had different reasons for drawing inward: some honestly believed that the revolution had to start within one’s self; others were frustrated with the slow pace of economic and political reform; and many others had probably never really been committed to the project in the first place and had just been along for the personal ride/high. Whatever the reasons, the result was to effectively strip the 1960s of its collective energy–which actually had the power to bring about change–and replace it with individualism, which has proven to be far too susceptible to co-option by political and economic structures. This, I think, is how we “dropped the baton” of the 1960s, choosing the individual sprint to personal satisfaction instead of the team relay for reform and revolution. A powerful lesson. Cheers to Elbow for providing such a rocking tune to go along with it.