Charles Kenneth Roberts

Politics, History, Culture

Segregation, highways, and historical ignorance

The Twitter account for Young America’s Foundation posted an extremely dumb tweet:

Mayor Peter is obviously correct about this, and you don’t have to be an urban historian to know it. There are numerous articles online (those are just some of the ones in the tweet replies) laying out some of the history, which is well-established. New highways and interstates cut through existing black and brown neighborhoods, leaving them destroyed, divided, or cut off from the rest of the community. In much of postwar America, “slum clearance,” the intentional destruction of black neighborhoods, was the official or unofficial goal of urban and transportation policy.

American city planners intentionally designed the highway system to promote white supremacy and segregation, making it easier for white city residents to flee to the suburbs while physically separating white and black areas. You can see this very easily in my home city of Birmingham, Alabama, where I-65 (the gray line running down the middle of the map) separated black residents (green dots) from white ones (blue dots), as well as making it possible to commute from the over-the-mountain white flight suburbs in cities like Vestavia Hills and Hoover. Birmingham’s racial segregation starkly stands out on the map still today. It’s not a coincidence that most of I-65 in Alabama was completed in the 1960s.

Both the government and private business (often a false distinction) contributed to and encouraged this segregation, either directly through segregationist legislation or ways like the well-known practice of redlining, denying services like mortgages to certain neighborhoods based on their racial characteristics.

The history of highway construction, urban policy, and the like has some complex elements, but it’s pretty straightforward. Redlining has a good Wikipedia page. Richard Rothstein wrote a bestseller in 2017, The Color of Law, that was well-received and talked about. None of this is secret or inaccessible information, which leads us to the “why” of the YAF tweet. After all, being pro-sprawl or pro-automobile culture or anti-public transit isn’t inherently conservative (or libertarian), just as being historically ignorant isn’t inherently conservative. The unfortunate trend, however, is that the dominant impulse on the American right is being anti-liberal. It’s more important to own the libs than it is to be correct. This is not new in American politics (there’s a similar trend that got liberals excited about awful people like Andrew Cuomo) or the Republican Party, but it’s gotten worse. It’s cost perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives during the pandemic, and it’s made goons like Ron DeSantis into potential presidential candidates.

If the operator of the YAF Twitter account doesn’t know this, then it’s because they don’t want to know it, or they know the truth but just don’t care. Like slavery as the cause of the American Civil War, this is a case where 99% of disagreement with the scholarly consensus is driven by ideology rather than evidence.

Fall 2020 Reviewed

I tried a flipped classroom approach for the fall semester. The TL;DR of my plan: for both practical and pedagogical reasons, I eliminated most planned lectures and instead had students answer assigned discussion questions ahead of class for my introductory World History to 1500 and America since 1865 classes. During class, we went over their answers and filled in the gaps, plus did other in-class activities (handouts, discussions, and such). The open-note take-home exams were based on the weekly questions, so preparing each week was also studying for the midterm and final exams. Here’s what went well and what went poorly.

There were some aspects of the class that I enjoyed very much, and I think the students enjoyed as well. Instead of following along with a Powerpoint and feeling stuck to the computer, it was (when students were prepared) students talking, and then me talking with them about their answers. I walked around, they talked; when it went well, it went quite well. I was impressed with how some students answered their questions–a good variety of approaches, different kinds of primary sources, and often some interesting and thoughtful responses. Since they were writing so much, but not too long each week, we avoided having high-stake assignments while letting students get a lot of feedback on their writing. It also fit very well into the pandemic circumstances; I ended up spending more of the class teaching remotely than teaching face-to-face, so there was no real transition; instead of meeting in person, students continued to write questions and do the kinds of things they had already been doing, just more of it.

To sum up the good and preview the bad of this semester: for the students who did well with the flipped approach, they did quite well. But for the students who did not do well, they did not do well at all. I’ve never had a bigger gap between the students who did well and the students who did poorly in a semester.

When it was not going well, it was not fun for me. When students were not prepared, there was not a lot I could do besides start telling them what they did wrong or didn’t do at all, explaining what they should have already known. Being outside, I lacked a blackboard/whiteboard, much less a projector or smartboard. Classes were, in one sense, much less structured and repeatable than usual. That is good when it goes well; there’s a spontaneity and sense of collaborative construction that gave everyone energy and excitement. But when that energy was absent, it was completely absent, and I had to just drag things to a finish.

From the perspective of the students being unprepared, I think there are a couple of elements. The failure to do some things that I think of as fundamental, basic aspects of being a college student (take notes, keep up with when assignments are due, usually be prepared for class) is partly an academic preparation thing. Students who never had meaningful deadlines or were never expected to participate in class before will find those responsibilities challenging. If a student in a freshman college class never wrote a research essay in high school, then even with all the instructions and tutoring and assistance a college can provide, they’re going to have a tough time of it.

But I do not think the main problem is that students cannot succeed; it’s not simply a question of intellectual ability or academic preparation. Most of the students who fail my classes are capable of passing. They just don’t. This Twitter thread really captures part of the phenomenon:

In theory, a flipped classroom isn’t asking students to do any additional work; they’re just doing the same kind of work in different ways and in a different order. But it doesn’t feel that way to students who are used to meeting, or just barely failing to meet, a different minimum workload. Too many students simply haven’t been good at meeting “invisible” expectations in class, and seeing how bad they were at it was a little disheartening. Even good students turned out to be pretty bad at taking notes from the discussions led by their fellow students, when it wasn’t an organized lecture by the professor with terms written on Powerpoint.

And however much professors want or are encouraged to be a “guide on the side” instead of a “sage on the stage” when teaching, many students want or at least think that they want a list of facts to know without having to do any critical thinking or reflection. They want to be passive recipients of knowledge. It’s how they’re conditioned to expect school to be. It’s easy, and it’s simple. And when they fail at some of the active or critical thinking aspects of a more active classroom, at least the things they memorize can show up, regurgitated on exams and in essays, so it doesn’t feel like a total failure to either student or instructor. However much you explain the value of a more active learning technique, a flipped classroom approach requires students to take responsibility for their own learning, and some of them don’t want to. There are ways to fix that, but I think teaching that sense of ownership to someone who doesn’t want to have it is much harder than teaching the academic parts of my class.

After a flipped semester, I probably won’t use this exact same format (fifteen straight weeks of students answering questions every class meeting), but I think I will use it for some sections of class. I miss lecturing, and I think my students miss it. A good lecture is the best way to convey some information. And I made a few rookie mistakes (like requiring students to submit their essays by class time instead of the day before, which would allow me to read over their answers and better prepare for specific errors, plus force them to do the work sooner and not run out of time before class starts). But with some slight improvements, this kind of question-based flipped-classroom approach will be an effective tool going forward.

Popular Originalism and the Constitution

I don’t find originalism to be a terribly useful or coherent judicial philosophy, for a variety of reasons. The founding generation didn’t agree on the Constitution’s meaning, and given that the Constitution was their second shot at creating a governing document, they clearly didn’t feel too tied down to what had come before. People like Thomas Jefferson specifically didn’t think the Constitution should bind future generations.

But there’s another version of originalism that is close to what I have seen called “popular originalism.” In political debates at all levels, people use their supposed understanding of the original intent of the framers of the Constitution as justification for whatever policy or institutional outcomes they want. It’s been a constant line of argument on both sides of the recent debate about expanding the size of the Supreme Court. Similarly, defenders of the Electoral College or the undemocratic nature of the Senate will claim that this is intentional, that it is how the Constitution was designed to work.

Well, it’s not. Nothing about American politics works the way the Founders intended it to work.

The Founders didn’t expect the party that wins the Electoral College to win the presidency, even if the popular vote went against that candidate, because most electors weren’t chosen by popular vote in 1788 (only about 40,000 people voted for president in the first election, out of a population of about 3 million). They didn’t expect people to vote for president; they expected the electors to do the actual deciding.* Both Alexander Hamilton and James Madison protested when states picked electors pledged to a particular candidate. And the Founders didn’t expect election methods to become a partisan dispute because they feared and hated parties–“factions”–and created no place for them in the Constitution. Further, it was clear that they goofed on the mechanics as soon as there were contested elections, leading to the 12th Amendment to fix what should have been an obvious problem in the election of president and vice president.

Many other things that are considered integral to our system are not explicitly in the Constitution or weren’t there from the start. Judicial review, so important in the modern understanding of checks and balances, is not directly referenced in the Constitution, and a sizable minority of delegates to the Constitutional Convention rejected the idea; in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison asserted that states could and should act against unconstitutional federal actions. The Senate stopped being what the Founders intended it to be when states began to popularly elect Senators, and at any rate they likely never anticipated the kind of disparities in size and population that now exist among the states (the biggest state population in 1790 was only about ten times bigger than the smallest; today, California’s population is about 70 times bigger than Wyoming). Our relatively giant congressional districts and the role that gerrymandering, campaign finances, electronic communication, and mass media play in elections today would have been unthinkable if not unimaginable to politicians in 1787.

So, if you think the Senate being undemocratic is good, because you like the outcomes that it leads to or because you’re not in favor of democratic government or for whatever reason, then just say that. If you support increasing the size of the court, or if you oppose it, just say that. But don’t claim that you’re doing what the Founders originally wanted, or because it’s how the Constitution was originally intended to work, because that option has been off the table for decades, in some cases for centuries.

*Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 68: “It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.”

Notably, in Federalist 78, Hamilton said “that where the will of the Legislature, declared in its statutes, stands in opposition to that of the People, declared in the Constitution, the Judges ought to be governed by the latter rather than the former. They ought to regulate their decisions by the fundamental laws, rather than by those which are not fundamental.” This assumes a popular support for the Constitution that is clearly intended to reference the ratification era, but to my mind suggests a need for popular votes on replacement or maintenance of the document.

The atomic bombing and WWII in the classroom

Today is August 6, the 75th anniversary of the first use of an atomic weapon in wartime. In 1945, the Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 bomber (named after the mother of the pilot, Colonel Paul Tibbets, a fact that always strikes me as startlingly bizarre), dropped the atomic bomb code-named “Little Boy” on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

The decision to drop the bombs has been widely debated, in two related ways. Was it necessary for the United States to drop the atomic bomb, to either win the war more quickly, prevent more American deaths, prevent more total deaths, or interrupt a Soviet takeover of Japan? And, was the dropping of the atomic bomb immoral–because it was unnecessary, inherently as an act of state terror, or for similar reasons?

For the first question, it seems like a solid majority of historians who study the question argue that dropping the atomic bomb was not strictly necessary for the United States to achieve its war aims. These scholars assert that the same surrender terms likely could have been reached without dropping in particular the second bomb, used on August 9 against Nagasaki, and the threat of a Soviet invasion had more impact on the Japanese decision to surrender than did the American bombings. I find this and the view of opponents at the time convincing–when even Douglas MacArthur thinks a bombing is unnecessary, it’s probably unnecessary.

But it’s the second question that has been more controversial, and it has added controversy to the debate over whether the bombing was militarily necessary. If using atomic weapons was not necessary to win the war, and if American leaders knew or should have known that was the case, then dropping atomic bombs was therefore more morally objectionable. Some would go even further and argue that using atomic weapons, even if in some sense necessary to win the war or to win it more quickly, are inherently immoral, a crime against humanity no matter the justification or need.

I should say here that I find the debate about the morality of the atomic bombings a bit beside the point. It’s not that it’s not important, but it seems like part of a larger problem with how people in general understand war and in particular how Americans understand the Second World War.

World War II is “the good war” in the popular imagination. Just watch virtually any movie made in the United States about WWII for proof. One reason people feel so invested in defending the use of atomic bombs is that they’re invested in the idea of the USA as one of the good guys during the war. If the United States is fighting for a good cause against bad people, then the American war effort is just and noble; to criticize the conclusion of the war is to undermine the moral foundation for much of American policy and action, indeed American self-conception, since 1945.

Even in history classrooms, this notion of a clear-cut good-vs-evil struggle is the predominant view of WWII. And it’s easy to understand why–it’s difficult to convey, especially in just a couple of hours of class time, the suffering inflicted by the German and Japanese governments and militaries before and during the war. The well-known crimes of one allied nation, the Soviet Union, and the less well-known but equally ruthless and longer running crimes of another ally, the British Empire, undermine this idea a bit, but the picture is basically the same: The Allies are generally the good guys who were attacked by the Axis, who were generally the bad guys. This is a narrative both appealing to a wide variety of people and at least partially founded on solid factual evidence.

But it’s wrong, of course. World War II cannot be the good war any more than any war can be; a war is at best a tragedy that fortunately wasn’t worse. War is bad, and World War II, even though it resulted in the destruction of some of the worst regimes in human history, was a very bad war. I always begin and end my classes on World War II by saying it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened in human history.

The use of the atomic bomb is the logical endpoint to the way in which World War II was fought, which was at great cost to civilian life. Probably more than 50 million civilians died in what was the deadliest, most destructive conflict in human history. The Nazi regime systematically killed its perceived and actual enemies, external and internal, including millions of Jews. The Nanking Massacre is only the most well-known of the various atrocities committed during the Japanese occupation of China. The Soviets were no strangers to committing massacres like at the Katyn forest. Targeting civilians, even outside of military or economic infrastructure like munitions factories, was the explicit policy of all combatants. Germans bombed London and other cities. The Allies in turn bombed German cities like Dresden, and even more destructively targeted Japanese cities; the March 1945 firebombing of Tokyo remains the most destructive single air attack in history (so far), even more than either of the atomic bombs. Humanity is fortunate that we’d already had such bad experiences with chemical weapons in World War I and that both sides were mostly too afraid of retribution to use them in combat, because otherwise London or Berlin or Tokyo would have been gassed.

When historians contribute to the notion of World War II as “the good war,” or teach any war as one of good guys and bad guys, we contribute to a misunderstanding of the actual nature of history. That doesn’t mean that history should be just a catalog of the various bad things that bad people have done to each other, with WWII as the merely the worst example. But the complexity and ambiguity of WWII is real and important. The extent that people don’t understand that contributes to debates like the one about dropping the atomic bomb, misguided by a context that presents it as one of a small number of morally questionable decisions in an otherwise mostly just and proper undertaking.


How I’m Approaching Fall 2020

Everyone is scrambling more than usual as the fall semester approaches. Covid-19 means that this school year is almost certainly going to be disrupted, at least for individual students and likely for an entire class or school. Many schools are requiring faculty to teach or be prepared to teach hybrid or hy-flex classes. I have been told to plan for face-to-face classes that could be interrupted and moved online anywhere from to two weeks to a whole semester.

In these circumstances, you can plan for class with two different approaches. You can try to have a course prepared for both eventualities (planning all the regular in-person work with a full alternative set of assignments and activities for online). But to minimize the disruption and difficulty for my students, I am trying to structure my classes in such a way that students can keep doing mostly the same thing each week, whether we meet in person or not, tailored to fit face-to-face, hybrid, and online schedules.

This semester I am combining my evolving philosophy about and approach to online education with my desire to add more active, flipped-classroom elements to my classes. Plus, there is a practical element: Everyone is going to be wearing masks and social distancing, and I am going to be usually teaching outside. Most of my usual lectures and several of my in-class activities won’t work without a computer with a projector/smartboard of some kind, so something has to change.

The way I usually structure my lectures is to build around a set of questions: Why did the Union win the Civil War? How did people think about the family and gender roles in postwar America, and what kind of impact did that have on American society? Then as we go, students know that they need to be answering those questions as we go through the material. I have been toying around with the idea of having students answer those questions themselves and bring them to class, instead of me lecturing. I would rather have done that in little batches, but I’m going all in because of the pandemic.

Each week, the class will be given a reading (usually just a textbook chapter and some primary sources) and a set of questions. Each week, each student will answer a question, post it on a discussion board in our LMS, and bring it to class for discussion. The questions are based mostly on the textbook chapters and any primary sources I think are particularly important or good for discussion. Students are required to use at least one primary source for evidence, and if they find a good scholarly secondary source besides the textbook, they can get additional credit for it. My expectation is that the first week or six will be a lot of me lecturing while they figure out how to answer a question well, but they should get the hang of how a historian thinks about things pretty quickly.

By way of example, here are my tentative questions for the first topic, Reconstruction, in the American history survey. Students will be given these questions, divided up by the first letter of their last name:

  • How did different groups in America—northern whites, southern whites, and freedpeople—react to the end of slavery and to African-American liberty?
  • What were the three most important events of Reconstruction? Why do you think those are so important?
  • How and why did Reconstruction come to an end?
  • Was Reconstruction successful or a failure? Why do you say that?

Each week I am aiming for a mix of more factual questions and more analytical ones, and I will rotate among different types of questions for different students. The American Yawp has a pretty good set of primary sources with each chapter, which I will supplement (it also has some discussion questions for each chapter; if I didn’t already have questions I like, I would probably just assign those questions for each week). In addition to writing their essays, students also need to be familiar with the answers other people wrote, for the purposes of class discussion; if it seems like they aren’t, I’ve got plans to require them to write up which answer written by another student was the best, and why they think that. In addition to discussing their questions, I’ve also got a few in-class activities I want to try or I think still work (like giving them an impossible literacy test from Louisiana to take as a pop quiz).

Some weeks will be much more directed toward specific sources. Here is what I have right now for the first of two weeks looking at the 1960s and 1970s:

  • Read the John Lewis March on Washington speech, with the original version and the version he gave. Why are they different? What do these different versions tell you about the course, accomplishments, and limitations of the Civil Rights movement?
  • Read the Huey P. Newton speech on gay and women’s liberation. What does it tell you about the relationships among those movements and the black civil rights movement? What about the views of larger society toward these movements?
  • In 1960, it looked the Democrats dominated American politics and would for a long time. In 1968, the Republicans would start a period of controlling the presidency for twenty of the next twenty-four years. How and why did the liberal movement fall apart so fast?
  • The 1960s and 1970s saw the beginning of the sexual revolution—why? How did ideas and practices around gender, sexuality, and the family change?

Grading these should be a snap: I have a very simple four-point rubric that is almost entirely about the substance of the answers, and I am already going to be grading participation, so that’s no added work. Assuming we don’t have any interruptions, students have those weekly questions/in-class discussions, some short research essays, and a couple of relatively low-stakes exams (based on the weekly questions they have already answered), with a participation score rounding out their grades.

But the odds of having an uninterrupted semester is, I think, pretty low. Should we have to move to entirely online instruction, this can easily go online: instead of answering one question a week and meeting in person to discuss, students will answer two, and we’ll get much more involved on the message boards. I can make myself available for virtual office hours for anyone who has questions about a topic.

The downside of this is that it is going to feel like much more work for the students, especially the ones who are not particularly studious. There are too many students who either expect or hope to sit in a room for a few hours a week while a professor talks, cram the night before to get a C three times a semester on exams that make up three-quarters of their grade, and then never think about a class again. This isn’t going to work for those students. And I am fairly certain this is going to mean a lot more work throughout the semester for me. But it also means that we’re going to be building the class together, as it were; they will be producing (or at least providing) the information for each other to learn. That’s exciting, and I hope that excitement will provide motivation.

There was a good Jonathan Rees blogpost the other week with this great line about online learning: “If you’re trying to replicate a face-to-face experience in your online class, buddy, you’re definitely doing it wrong.” If anything, I’ve come to the conclusion that more professors would be better off doing the opposite. If you only taught online and then got to teach a face-to-face class, would you be better off than someone who only taught in-person and then got to teach online?

Crossroads: Change in Rural America talk

This is the text of my talk as part of one of the events for the Smithsonian Institution Museum on Main Street’s Crossroads: Change in Rural America traveling exhibit in Cuthbert, Georgia. I was part of a lecture panel titled “Changes in Government and Community.”

January 30, 2020

Good afternoon. I’m going to start my talk today with some unsettling statistics. The Economic Research Service, which is part of the USDA, defines a county in persistent poverty as one that has 20% or more of its population living in poverty over a thirty-year period. There are currently 353 such counties in the United States. 85% of them are rural. 84% of them are southern. More than one in five southern counties is persistently poor, clustered in the Mississippi Delta, along the Black Belt, and in Appalachia. A quarter of all Americans who live in completely rural counties are in a county which qualifies as persistently in poverty. Read more of this post

Election Essays for Active Learning

Like a lot of academics, I went through my undergraduate program taking classes mostly made up of lecture. As a result, when I first started teaching, I copied what I knew and wrote lectures. Some people say we should mostly or entirely get rid of lectures, which I find unconvincing (unless they’re bad lectures and/or in classes that are too big to begin with, but that’s not really the anti-lecture case), but I believe that breaking up lectures with some in-class activities is a valuable idea, with the mix depending on the teacher and subject.

The hardest part about doing that, for me, was figuring out what exactly I should be doing for active learning. What does an active classroom for history look like? Something I have had success with, in the American History since 1865 survey, is a set of essays and in-class discussions based on presidential elections.

I divide that course into thirds, so students write three medium-length essays, sprinkled throughout the semester on days I assign them (being sure, as much as possible, that no one is assigned elections with the same person more than once). Each essay answers the same question: What would have motivated someone to vote for a particular candidate in a specified election? In other words, can you prove you understand historical perspective and the context surrounding it? For the assignment, students have to use primary sources to demonstrate that they understand the perspective of a voter for a particular party (for the first and sometimes second essay, I assign students the party; they get to choose for the last one). I divide the due dates up so that we have about one election a week. I give students the option of how they frame their essay: they can write a traditional scholarly kind of essay, but they can also frame it as a campaign speech, editorial, letter to a friend, or any other appropriate format they want; some students really like that part.

In addition to the essays, on the day we discuss the students’ assigned elections, we have a debate and vote in class. The students who wrote essays that week make an argument for why their candidate was the best, and they take questions from the rest of class, who are the voters. Everyone is required to know at least the candidates and the major issues for each election, so that they can ask effective questions of the candidate stand-ins. Then, they vote for which side made the more convincing argument.

This assignment works for me, for a few reasons. It is good at getting students to talk to each other, which is often difficult; even the most reticent student can bring a few carefully-prepared statements to the class. It really works well when students are competitive. I’m not sure it quite counts as gamification, but winning the vote becomes very important for certain kinds of students. I like to be able to link the things I’m lecturing about to the election discussion or specific points students wrote about; it makes connections between what the students are doing outside of class or among themselves and what I’m trying to get them to learn. Generally, this election essay assignment seems to do a good job achieving its pedagogical purpose: getting students to understand, at least a bit, how people in the past thought and why they might have acted the way that they did. And, from a purely selfish perspective, spreading out the essays so that I have ten or so essays to grade almost every week instead of a big chunk at once a few times a semester is much easier to schedule around.

It isn’t perfect. For a competitive class in particular, it works great, but for an apathetic class that won’t do any preparation and doesn’t care about the election, or when the students who are supposed to be writing essays don’t do them, it’s even worse than a regular bad discussion, since you don’t have a text of some kind to focus the discussion on. The convenience of spreading the assignments out usually works well for both students and me (if you teach students who do a lot of extracurricular activities, letting them pick when an assignment is due can make missing class for a game or performance much easier), but it also means that less conscientious students sometimes miss the deadlines, no matter how many email reminders you send. Plus, the lack of a shared due date makes some of the in-class preparation, like talking about how to use primary sources or where to find good secondary sources, less urgent to some students, who then might not do as well or need re-teaching. The next time I do this assignment, I think I will have the first essay for everyone be due the same time, or have a shorter practice essay worth fewer points.

This probably isn’t an every semester kind of assignment. I have taught it three semesters in a row that I’ve done the American History II survey, but my courses are scheduled such that I teach each survey every other semester, so once an academic year. I haven’t gotten tired of it yet, but if I taught it four semesters in a row I might be. But as an easy way to bring discussion into a more active classroom, it works very well for me.

Finding and Evaluating Sources

Here is a brief guide to finding and evaluating sources for an introductory history class that I wrote for my students. You may find it helpful as well:

Finding and Evaluating Sources for a History Class

Links to Read: April

The LeBron Paradox: This is a good LeBron James article because it gets at what I think is the fundamental aspect of James, something that’s applicable to him and just a tiny handful of living human beings: it’s impossible for normal people to imagine what it’s like to be him. It’s easier for me to imagine being the president, who is in the end no more than a particularly busy and public bureaucrat, than to imagine being LeBron James. As Brian Phillips puts it: “I can’t imagine what it’s like to be him. Can you? With any confidence? To have gone in the blink of an eye, while still an adolescent, into a state of almost unfathomable fame, cameras everywhere you turn, so many people to tell you ‘yes,’ so few people to tell you ‘no.'” And that doesn’t even consider the transcendent physical talent.

Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind: Whether or not you are a prison abolitionist, I think a general policy that aims us toward prison abolition, even if we never got there, would be better for society.

How to reduce digital distractions: advice from medieval monks: “They complained about being overloaded with information, and about how, even once you finally settled on something to read, it was easy to get bored and turn to something else. They were frustrated by their desire to stare out of the window, or to constantly check on the time (in their case, with the Sun as their clock), or to think about food or sex when they were supposed to be thinking about God.”

The Raisin Situation: I wondered why everyone kept talking about raisins on the internet. This is why. It’s good! Raisins are serious business.


“The Self-Defeating Logic of the Attack on Pearl Harbor”

This is the text of a talk I gave to the Randolph County Historical Society, titled “The Self-Defeating Logic of the Attack on Pearl Harbor.”

The title of my talk today is “the self-defeating logic of the attack on Pearl Harbor.” I’d like to discuss why Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor and why, despite being a short-term victory, it ended up being a long-term failure.

There are many examples in history of winning a battle but losing a war. Sometimes, it’s the fact of winning that battle that loses the war. I don’t think there’s a better example of this than the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which has gone down in history as “a date which will in infamy,” in the famous words of American president Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Imperial Japanese government believed that its attack would accomplish a number of different aims that would guarantee Japanese success and power in the Pacific. As it turned out, the very act of attacking Pearl Harbor ended up guaranteeing that Japan could never maintain a position as the leading power in the Pacific. Read more of this post