31 July 2003

Welcome Professor Ferguson

Niall Ferguson, author of acclaimed revisionist histories The Pity of War and Empire will be joining the Harvard faculty in July 2004.

Ferguson is the latest in a series of history superstars my lovely department has attracted over the past several years. Harvard is certainly the place to do American History these days; witness the recruitment (now several years in the past) of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and more recently the hiring of Joyce Chaplin, Drew Gilpin Faust, Nancy Cott, and Jill Lepore. Now it looks like Harvard is revving up to dethrone Princeton and Yale as places to be for economic history and intellectual history. The next few years should be exciting!

26 July 2003

IA on Abortion

Invisible Adjunct has an excellent post on her take on the abortion issue. It is remarkably close to my own, in fact. She describes a deep personal discomfort with the idea of abortion while simultaneously being uncomfortable with the government making decisions about women's lives. I couldn't have said it better myself. And I think the position she espouses is closest to how most Americans, including staunch feminists and Planned Parenthood supporters like myself, feel about the issue.

But I must disagree on her opposition to so-called partial birth abortion. It is a shame that right-wing propaganda has led people to believe that women are out there in their ninth month of pregnancy, deciding that they don't want their baby, and wantonly lining up for a third-trimester abortion. (I don't think this is what IA thinks--I am not trying to put words in her mouth.) Most states already, and I think reasonably, forbid such abortions EXCEPT to save the life of the mother. And in saving the life of a woman I believe doctors, not legislators, should make decisions about what procedures to use. The current federal law, recently passed by Congress and signed by Bushie, makes no exception for the life/health of the mother. It was an unprecedented interference in the decision-making process between doctors and patients that I find deeply distressing. Which is why, like many women, I support Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights organizations' efforts to overturn such legislation: not because I think third-trimester abortions are a great idea, but because doctors and their patients shouldn't be hampered by congressional fanatics.

I find it hard to be passive on the issue of abortion, because I think bound up in all the rhetoric surrounding it are two fundamentally different approaches to the position of women in society. Anti-choicers are not motivated by a respect for life (generally speaking) but by a desperate desire to control women. If you think I am exaggerating, I invite you to go observe any women's health clinic (even those that don't perform abortions) in your town on a day when the protestors are lined up outside. I guarantee you'll come away from the experience with an entirely new perspective.

I have come to the conclusion that to give further ground on abortion will impact women negatively on a number of other levels. Already state governments don't trust us enough to make our own decisions so that we have to wait 24 hours, or beg a judge, or sneak across state lines. For me that's a short trip from the choice between a forced pregnancy and an illegal abortion--no choice at all.

19 July 2003

Professor Norton gives Rummy a history lesson

In today's Times Cornell History Professor Mary Beth Norton tells readers exactly why Rumsfeld's comparisons of America in the 1780s and and Iraq in 2003 are inaccurate, misleading, and based on an antique and frankly wrong interpretation of the era of the Articles of Confederation. I hope, along with Professor Norton, that Rummy goes out and reads some American history published after 1910.

17 July 2003

"Interracialism went well beyond the Bedroom"

The New York Times is having a field day lately with Jefferson and slavery-related materials. This excellent article points out how black and white families were connected by more than genetics at Monticello.

I'll be visiting Monticello with my boyfriend this weekend. I look forward to reporting on its presentation of slavery.

15 July 2003

Servants versus Slaves--More than an issue of semantics

On Sunday the Library of Virginia is closed, so I took the afternoon off to see some Richmond sights. I picked the Museum and White House of the Confederacy as my first entertainment. Since Richmond was the capital of the CSA for most of its short existence, I wanted to see how this museum portayed the South and its cause.

I must be clear about this. I think the Civil War is among the greatest tragedies of our country's history. I also think slavery was at the root of the conflict and that those who fought for disunion were doing so in part to protect their ecomonic security. I also tend to think of characters like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson as traitors, not as brave men fighting for a Lost Cause. But enough about that.

The Museum itself is three floors of Confederate memorabilia, with only a small corner of space dedicated to the lives of African-Americans before and during the war. Visitors can give money to preserve Confederate flags and can buy ties with the Stars and Bars. I found the celebration of "Confederate Nationalism" a tad tasteless...One exhibit, focusing on the lives of Confederate soldiers, was titled "The Hope of Eight Million People." That would be, for all who are not aware, eight million WHITE people. The approximately four million enslaved African-Americans were presumably not so excited about Johnny Reb.

The second portion of the Museum is the actual White House of the Confederacy, where Jefferson Davis and his family lived from the autumn of 1861 until they fled the city in April 1865. The tour was led by a volunteer docent.

I became aware almost immediately that the tour was slanted to give much more information about the house's white occupants. In fact, the docent repeatedly referred to the family's "servants," who cooked and cleaned and guided guests to the appropriate parlors. After a few rooms of this, I asked the docent if when she said "Servants" she was referring to "slaves."

"Well," she responded, a little flustered I think, "we prefer to refer to them as servants on this tour."

"Oh," I said. "You mean these people were paid wages, could go home at night, and never had to be afraid of having their families broken up when one of them was sold down the river."

"Well, no," she said. And promptly took another question from a woman about the provenance of a particular oil painting.

After that, I must say I made a nuisance of myself. Everytime she said "servant," I coughed loudly and said "slave." I think everyone else on that tour was very glad to have it done with, although with typical Southern manners no one said anything to me.

At the end of the tour I asked the docent where the slave quarters had been. She pointed out the location, and I asked why there was no memorial. She shrugged. I inquired as to where Jefferson Davis's slaves had come from. Her response (and this is a direct quote), "Oh, he brought fifteen or twenty nigra servants with him from Mississippi."

My jaw dropped open. I was so appalled I could scarcely contain myself, but at the same time didn't know quite what to say. The docent wandered off and a left in a hurry. I am sure I was red in the face and deeply embarassed just to have heard such a word, let alone to have actually been talking to a person who would use it to described enslaved African-Americans.

Some might suggest that the issue of whether or not you refer to human property as a servant or a slave is a silly thing to quibble over. But the real problem here is that by referring to slaves as servants this docent rendered slavery benign and harmless, pushing it to the background of a conflict she wants to believe was about law and secession. She wished to inculcate in visitors a vision in which the plantation South was full of happy black people who served their masters faithfully. For her, slavery wasn't a tragedy at all. And therein, I think, lies the key to understanding America's continuing race problems. Until Southerners can be brought to understand why slavery was such a disaster, I fear there is no end in sight to racism.

10 July 2003

The Monticello Association and Racism

Good news for my handful of faithful readers: I have Internet access in Virginia. I'll be able to post whenever I feel the need.

Today I offer this little nugget about Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello. One of Jefferson's white descendants, Lucian Truscott IV, has been instrumental in trying to include the descendents of Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings in Monticello reunions. His Op-Ed piece in today's New York Times tells how his efforts have been received by other white Jefferson descendants--with hate and scarcely veiled racism.

I have read quite a bit about the DNA testing done on Hemings and Jefferson descendants. I think it is fairly convincing, and I have no doubt that as the science becomes more exact, Jefferson's white descendants will no longer be able to hide from the fact that they share blood ties with the families of former slaves. But beyond that, I think that regardless of blood ties the descendants of Jefferson's slaves should be allowed to come to Monticello Association events. After all, didn't most antebellum slave owners claim that the human beings they owned were part of the family?

02 July 2003

Research Trip and Crooked Colorado Republicans

I am leaving for a research trip to Virginia (yes indeed, dissertation progress WILL be made) tomorrow, but once there, I am not sure how consistently I will have access to the Internet for non-research purposes. So I expect posting will be lighter than usual for the next three or four weeks. I am sure all five of my regular readers will miss me terribly. I intend to keep a research diary of sorts that I will post parts of when I get back. Historian types might find it interesting.

As a parting gift, I leave you with this Washington Post article about redistricting in Colorado, which was kindly passed on to me by my father. In it, one Republican says,

"Nonpartisanship is not an option," state Senate President John Andrews wrote in a newspaper column responding to critics. "There are only two kinds of Congress to choose from: one where . . . Republicans hold the majority, or one where . . . Democrats do."

These are the kind of sentiments that so frustrated Professor Cooper six weeks back...I thought he would be driven out of the blogosphere entirely for a while, although I am glad to see he's back. I too find these kind of comments frustrating. It may not be obvious from my blog entries which are generally full of outrage, but I do believe there are plenty of issues where Dems and Republicans can come together and do the business of governing. I am not sure where the hatred of people like John Andrews is coming from. But it doesn't say a lot about the health of our republic.

I suspect this one willl be up to the courts to untangle. And the cynic in me reminds everyone to remember which party is now busily packing the courts.

Can Bill Frist be Prosecuted for Animal Cruelty?

Maureen Dowd's New York Times column today makes reference to Senator Frist's so-called compassionate conservatism.

There's a serial cat killer on the loose in the West. Has anyone checked Bill Frist's alibi?

In his 1989 memoir, Dr. Frist, the heart surgeon and Senate majority leader, confessed that at Harvard Medical School, he used to adopt stray cats at shelters, take them home and slice and dice them for practice.

"It was, of course, a heinous and dishonest thing to do," he wrote. "And I was totally schizoid about the entire matter. By day, I was little Billy Frist, the boy who lived on Bowling Avenue in Nashville and had decided to become a doctor because of his gentle father and a dog named Scratchy. By night, I was Dr. William Harrison Frist, future cardiothoracic surgeon, who was not going to let a few sentiments about cute, furry little creatures stand in the way of his career. In short, I was going a little crazy."

Going a little crazy or not, Frist deliberately mislead Boston-area animal shelters about his intentions in adopting kittens, and then killed them in horrible ways. Since these vivisections (if the kittens were still alive) or dissections (if he killed them first) did not take place in research labs, I assume they would constitute animal cruelty.

So my question is, Can Frist still be prosecuted in the state of Massachusetts for animal cruelty? Is there a statute of limitations on that sort of thing? Any lawyers out there who read this and have some insight, do drop me an email at rgoetz at fas dot harvard dot edu.